Home > IDEAS > Events > Individual Events > 2012 > Sport and the Nation: Interpreting Indian history through the lens of cricket

Sport and the Nation: Interpreting Indian history through the lens of cricket

Speaker: Dr Ramachandra Guha, Chair: Professor Michael Cox
Tuesday 6th March 2012, 6.30-8.00pm. Old Theatre, Old Building

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

Only that it is not. How did a game played by homesick colonial administrators in front of curious native onlookers become not only a fanatic obsession with the latter, but a part of their history and cultural identity? The Indianisation of cricket, as Dr. Ramachandra Guha discussed, is not only a great sporting history, but an expression of societal relations in colonial and post-colonial India.

Cricket established its roots in India along communal lines. It was the Parsis who first stepped inside the field, emulated by the Hindus and then the Muslims. By 1912 the Bombay Quadrangular had emerged as the first form of competitive cricket in India where the Parsi, Hindu and Muslim teams took on their European counterparts, and was followed feverishly from Karachi to Calcutta. For the British, Indian cricket may have been a benign yet unifying form of colonial legacy, but for Indians it had a much wider and explicit political context of East versus West, an emotion that found vehement expression whenever one of the indigenous teams defeated the Europeans.

In spite of being a vehicle of nationalist pride, Indian cricket could not escape the prevalent social discriminations. Dr. Guha went on to tell the tale of Palwankar Baloo, the first great Indian cricketer, a dalit (untouchable), whose cricketing prowess was noticed only after bowling endlessly to the Europeans at the Pune Cricket Club nets. Despite being one of the most prolific cricketers of his time, Baloo was never made Captain of the Hindu team, as that would have upturned the established social order where only the higher castes were believed to possess the mental faculty to strategise and lead. Such discrimination on the sporting field was eventually challenged once Gandhi launched his social campaign against Untouchability, and though Gandhi himself never watched cricket, his movement emboldened the Palwankars to fight more openly for their rights.

Dr. Guha also explained the reasons behind the ready acceptance of cricket by the Indians at large. First, the narrow streets and gallis where every child first experiences the sport, provide a natural setting for the basic grammar of ‘playing straight’ to be adopted. Second, cricket is a sport that doesn’t demand much athletic ability, allowing almost anyone to participate. Third, the periodic intervals during a match have turned its viewership into a semi-social occasion. And finally, despite dismal international sporting records, India progressed steadily in cricket, thus fuelling the fierce nationalist fervour associated with the sport since its inception. But Dr. Guha also handed a note of caution: the market-led perversions of the T20 format poses a serious threat to India’s advancement as a Test playing nation- an aberration occurring with alarming regularity in recent times.

Are there any Indians who hate cricket? Possibly there are some, particularly sportsperson from other fields- and justifiably so- dwarfed by the money and fame cricket enjoys. The economists, Dr. Guha added in a lighter vein, may be worried by the economic effects of long periods of virtual standstill during matches. And there are the Anglophobe nationalists, who still see cricket as a neo-colonial conspiracy.

Dr. Guha ended his lecture with an anecdote about Ram Manohar Lohia, a cricket hater, who once having concluded a verbose press-conference denigrating cricket as a colonial vestige, proceeded to enquire about an ongoing India-Pakistan test match at a nearby paan-shop. Such is the wonderful concoction that is Indian cricket, where inside every cricket-hater, a lover of the sport continues to breathe. 

- Ritanjan Das


To listen to the event podcast click here



Ramachandra Guha
  Dr Ramachandra Guha is Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2011-2012




Michael Cox
Professor Michael Cox is  is Co-Director of LSE IDEAS and Professor of International Relations at LSE.














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