Shashi Tharoor's column: Cricket among few finest legacies of British colonialism in India

Shashi Tharoor, author and Member of Parliament, says cricket probably remains, along with the English language, the railway system and the Indian army, the finest legacy of 200 years of British colonialism in India.

Reported by: Shashi Tharoor
Last updated on Wednesday, 14 November, 2012 13:51 IST
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The prospect of an India-England Test match instantly conjures up, for me, memories of the first Test I ever saw, aged 7.

I was introduced to Test cricket by an indulgent father one sunny afternoon in Bombay's lovely Brabourne Stadium, in late 1963, when a depleted English side was touring under Mike Smith. The Englishmen were so ravaged by an assortment of maladies that they played both tour wicketkeepers and enlisted the fielding of the Indian 12th man, Hanumant Singh (who was to go on to score a century on debut against them in the next Test).

Whatever the strength of the visitors, though, the cricket on the third day of the Test was marvellous. I watched with enthralled seven-year-old eyes as Budhi Kunderan, India's opening batsman and wicketkeeper who looked like a West Indian and played like one, pulled John Price, England's fastest bowler, for six over square-leg, the ball landing practically at my feet. He almost instantly repeated the shot, this time just failing to clear the rope.

In less time than the difference between a four and a six could be explained to me, Kunderan was 16; but he tried it too often, sending up a skier that swirled up in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As the ball spiralled upward, Kunderan began running; when it was caught by a relieved Fred Titmus in the deep, Kunderan continued running, hurled his bat up skywards with an exuberant war-whoop, caught it as it came down and ran on into the pavilion. It was exhilarating stuff, and I was hooked for life.

The 1963-64 series in fact produced five draws that few pundits would classify as memorable, but it epitomised some of the best things about Indo-English cricket. It was played in tremendous spirit throughout, as befitted a post-colonial relationship bereft of rancour (India had, after all, invented the formula which allowed it, as a Republic, to stay within the Commonwealth). The players and the crowds were equally cheerful, and Hanumant Singh's fielding for England was only one of many gestures of sportsmanship and co-operation between the sides.

When the Kanpur Test ended, for instance, Pataudi was 199 not out, but before the umpires could remove the bails, Titmus grabbed the ball and sent down a friendly long-hop so that the Indian captain could complete his maiden (and as it happened, only) Test double-century. It wouldn't have happened in an Ashes encounter nor, I dare say, in an Indo-Pakistan Test.

Cricket probably remains, along with the English language, the railway system and the Indian army, the finest legacy of 200 years of British colonialism in India, one of the few areas in which imperialism gave more than it took. Like the other remnants of the colonial presence, cricket has been thoroughly Indianised without losing its essential British moorings. After producing Oxbridge-educated Test stars for England (like Ranji, Duleep, and the elder Pataudi) and subsequently for India (notably Baig and Pataudi junior), Indian cricket now reaches deep into the subcontinental soil, sustaining innumerable grass-roots tournaments, attracting the largest audiences for any spectator sport in the world and creating stars more comfortable in Punjabi or Maithili than in the language of silly mid-on, leg glance and bowling a maiden over. (No wonder the first new cricketing term introduced since the word "chinaman" is from Hindustani - the "doosra"!)

Cricket is now an Indian game; many who play it have no sense of owing it to England. Yet, just as Indian nationalists used British traditions and institutions to overturn British rule, so also Indians have taken up an English sport and delight in beating the English literally at their own game. While contests with the country's neighbour and twin, Pakistan, generate more intense passions, it is still true that few sporting triumphs are regarded with more satisfaction by Indians than a cricket victory over England.

For years, such victories were slow in coming, except at home where, before my first series, Indian teams twice defeated English touring sides that were at less than full strength. But in England, the pattern was depressingly familiar. When 5-0 whitewash succeeded 5-0 whitewash, Lord's decided it could only invite India for a three-Test series, but even then, in 1967, India fell at every hurdle, a magnificent fightback at Leeds notwithstanding. (That was when the Indian captain, following on and in a losing cause, stroked a 148 so memorable the Daily Mail dubbed him "the Nawab of Pataudi and Headingley".)

The post-colonial reality appeared to reflect the colonised past: the rulers continued their dominance over their former subjects. In 1967 - at a time when drought and famine had reduced India to dependence on foreign, including British, aid- - we had sent England a side of talented batsmen whose gifts outshone their performance, an array of spin bowlers who plied their craft in conditions ill-suited to their genius and a pair of pacemen so woeful that Pataudi felt compelled to open the bowling himself with his reserve wicketkeeper (Kunderan). By 1971, a year of victory in war as well as cricket, the balance was redressed: that year, the annus mirabilis of Indian cricket brought the first Indian Test (and series) victory in England, when Chandrasekhar's 6 for 38 bowled England out at The Oval after two draws and made it to the front page of all the Indian papers.

The joy was to prove short-lived. The reckoning came in 1974, when a combination of fading veterans and raw newcomers crashed to ignominious defeat in India's 'summer of '42' (the team's all-out score at Lord's). Roy Ulyett drew a painfully pointed cartoon showing a lady addressing a middle-aged gent outside the Gents' at the ground: "I told you you should have gone earlier: you've missed the entire Indian second innings." In the next Indo-English cricket encounter, in 1976-77, the English beat us at home, something they hadn't done since 1934. We were back, it seemed, at the familiar nadir.

The cricket then became more frequent and better balanced, with each side winning home and away. Indeed, Indian victories have become familiar in ways unthinkable to the cricket-watcher of the 1960s and 1970s. The iconic image of the India-England cricketing relationship of the last decade must be that of the victorious visiting captain, Sourav Ganguly, stripping off his shirt and waving it above his head on the Lord's balcony. Lord's is a pavilion from which many have been turned away for not sporting a jacket and tie; Ganguly's brash gesture seemed an act not just of defiance but of revolt against convention, an overturning of the old order.

In parallel, Britain has been paying heed to India's new global importance, with a succession of political leaders paying visits to New Delhi. When David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party, the first country he visited to burnish his hitherto scant foreign policy credentials was India; when he became Prime Minister, he did the same, bringing one of the largest foreign delegations ever seen in New Delhi. The days when Englishmen - politicians or cricketers - declined to tour India have long since disappeared; what was once the jewel in the imperial crown glitters even more alluringly as the world's second-fastest growing major economy.

For more than a decade and a half, England had not won a Test series against India, and never looked particularly likely to. This was a period when a resurgent Indian economy made it the global powerhouse of cricket, a force to contend with where the game's rules and plans are made or amended, a heavyweight on the ICC and the source of nearly 90% of the sport's global revenues. The team's gigantic fan base has produced players capable of inspiring millions. But not all is rosy now with the national economy or the cricket team's fortunes: India have slipped from the top position in the world Test rankings to a disappointing fifth place. They were routed in English conditions last summer, the 2011 scoreline of 4-0 an embarrassing throwback to a forgotten past.

Indians have become accustomed to winning; defeat is increasingly an anomaly. But England has been rebuilding successfully, economically as well as in cricketing terms. They have a recent record of success and a settled roster of batsmen and bowlers who combine reliability with talent. India would be unwise to take anything for granted, even in home conditions. England, despite their resurgence, need to prove to themselves as much as to Indians that they can win on subcontinental pitches.

The cricketing relationship of the two countries has evolved parallel to the political. Memories of colonial dominance have faded, there is more open give-and-take, both sides are more used to one another and more accepting of the shifting balance of fortunes between them. It should make for an absorbing post-colonial contest - a contest between equals.

Story first published on: Wednesday, 14 November 2012 13:28 IST

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