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Gandhi and cricket

NOW, in the week we mark Mahatma Gandhi's 132nd birth anniversary, we must ask ourselves: Did he ever play or watch cricket himself? The biographies that I have read do not mention the game, indeed any game. A cricketer does, however, does figure fleetingly in his autobiography. When Gandhi first went to England as a student, in 1889, one of the three letters of introduction he carried was to his fellow Kathiawari, Prince Ranjitsinhji. We do not know whether they met. In any case, it was only after Gandhi left London, in 1891, that Ranji moved to the University of Cambridge to make his name on its playing fields.

The only evidence of a Gandhian interest in cricket that I know of is contained in a newspaper essay of 1958 by the Gujarati journalist Harish Booch. Booch had just met one of the Mahatma's classmates at Alfred High School, Rajkot. This man, Ratilal Ghelabhai Mehta, remembered Gandhi as "a dashing cricketer" who "evinced a keen interest in the game as a school student". He was, it seems, "good both at batting and bowling", and had an uncanny understanding of the game's uncertainties as well. Mehta spoke of a match they had watched together as schoolboys, played between Rajkot city and Rajkot cantonment. Apparently, "at a crucial moment in the match, as if through intuition, Gandhi said a particular player would be out and hey presto, that batsman was really out!"

These recollections were offered 10 years after the death of Gandhi more than 70 years after the event he predicted, and to a journalist hungry for a new angle to a ruthlessly written about figure. Both interviewer and interviewee were, it appears, a trifle apologetic about the revelations. After Mehta had praised Gandhi's skill at batting and bowling, he added: "Though he had an aversion for physical exercise at school, as he pointed out in his autobiography".

Cricket might not have affected Gandhi, but Gandhi certainly affected cricket. The political movements he led and the social changes he sought to bring about had their consequences on how the game was played in the sub-continent.

Between 1919 and 1923, for instance, he was dragged, willy-nilly, into a remarkable campaign to accord just recognition to a family of Dalit cricketers. These were the Palwankar brothers, the eldest of whom, Palwankar Baloo, was without question India's first great slow bowler. But, because of his caste, Baloo was never made captain of the Hindu team in the Bombay Quadrangular, then India's premier cricket tournament, and in which the other competing teams were the Muslims, the Parsis, and the ruling Europeans.

The campaign to accord just recognition to the Palwankars got an enormous boost from Gandhi own struggle against the evils of caste. The family's nationalist supporters took heart from the Mahatma's claim that swaraj would come about only after we had done away with the pernicious social practice of untouchability. In 1923, Baloo's younger brother Vithal was made captain of the Hindus. Palwankar Vithal was a high-class batsman; according to some who watched both, he was just as good as Vijay Hazare.

In the finals of the 1923 quadrangular the Hindus won, with their captain making a century. As one patriot who watched that year's quadrangular 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 so- called higher castes. Hurrah! Captain Vithal! Hurrah! Hindus who forget caste prejudice! Mahatma Gandhi Maharaj ki jai."

Gandhi's next intervention with the course of cricket came in the form of his Salt March of 1930. This led, as we know, to countrywide Civil Disobedience. The city of Bombay was an epicentre of the protests, and as a consequence the Quadrangular was not held between 1930 and 1933. When it resumed, in 1934, it became the object of fierce opposition from nationalists. If the Muslims had a separate cricket team, the argument went, did not this provide them a justification for demanding a separate nation? The Gandhians among cricket lovers mounted a sustained campaign against the communal cricket tournament. Finally, in 1940, they were able to obtain a statement from the Mahatma himself (by this time the tournament had become a Pentangular, with the inclusion of a fifth side simply called The Rest). Gandhi told them that his "sympathies (were) wholly with those who would like to see these matches stopped". Gandhi asked the "sporting public of Bombay to revise their sporting code and to erase from it communal matches."

"I can understand matches between Colleges and Institutions," remarked Gandhi, "but I have never understood the reason for having Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and other communal Elevens. I should have thought that such unsportsmanlike divisions would be considered taboo in sporting language and sporting manners."

Sadly, the forces that favoured the continuation of the Pentangular were also strong and well organised. So, despite the Mahatma's opposition, the tournament was played on until 1946, by which time the creation of Pakistan was a fait accompli. Neither cricket nor Gandhi could stop it.

Postscript: It was said of Gandhi that he was a saint who wished to become a politician. I like to think that he was also a philosopher who wished to become a humourist. On one occasion, cricket was the subject of his wit. When Vijay Merchant's sister Laxmi asked for his autograph, Gandhi chose the page of her book containing the signatures of the 1933-34 M.C.C. team, selecting himself as its 17th member.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

The writer is the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket

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