Without the support of the Indian royalty, neither classical music nor cricket would have survived into the 21st Century.
Madhavrao Scindia ... enthusiastic support for cricket
ONCE, at a dinner party in Delhi, I was introduced to a British diplomat as someone who wrote about cricket. "In that case," said the diplomat, "You should know that I am the most unpopular cricketer in Gwul-yore. I played there for the High Commission, and committed the cardinal sin of bowling the Maharaja first ball. It was also the first ball of the match, and the poor umpire had not the wit or the voice to shout, "No ball."
We may infer from this story that the man who got a duck was the most popular cricketer in Gwalior. He was, of course, Madhavrao Scindia. Scindia played cricket whenever he could, on Sundays as well as weekdays. He spent much time promoting the game, building a floodlit stadium in his city and recruiting players from Bombay to strengthen the Madhya Pradesh Ranji Trophy team.
Madhavrao Scindia's interest in cricket bordered on obsessiveness. While he lived, it was often said that this obsession would prevent him achieving the highest political office. It has always seemed to me that Scindia's love for cricket was in part a reaction to the fact that his State's historic neighbour and rival had so successfully promoted the game. Thus the Maharaja of Holkar had, in the 1940s, built the finest cricket team in India, led by C.K. Nayudu and containing such stalwarts as Mushtaq Ali, C.T. Sarwate, K.M. Rangnekar and C.S. Nayudu. This team won the Ranji Trophy regularly. It was, so to say, to make up for lost time that Scindia chose so energetically to support cricket himself.
Madhavrao Scindia was the last in a long line of Indian princes whose interest in cricket has greatly exceeded their ability. Consider thus the captain of the Indian team that toured England in 1932, the Maharaja of Porbandar. He made a total of two runs on tour, provoking the jibe that he was the only visiting captain to own more Rolls-Royces than he made runs. Sensibly, Porbandar chose to step down for the solitary Test match of the summer. So did his official vice-captain, Prince Ghanshyamsinhji of Limbdi. Thus it was that the great commoner C.K. Nayudu became the first Test captain of India.
A prince not as wise in this respect was a certain Maharaja of Kashmir. He liked to bat but disdained the game's lesser arts. When his team was in the field he would repair to his pooja room, where he remained until a telephone message came telling him that it was his turn to bat. A car now brought the Maharaja to the ground, where pads and gloves were reverentially put on him by his valets. The monarch would then walk to the pitch, his hands on the shoulders of his helpers. The bowlers were instructed to bowl a series of slow long hops and full tosses, these aided by the fielders' feet across the boundary line. In time, the scorer would announce that the Maharaja had reached his century.
Other princes, more sensibly, paid for better players to play under their colours but were content to watch themselves. Famous patrons of cricket included the rulers of the states of Bhopal, Baroda, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Dungarpur, Cooch-Behar, and Natore.
The most notorious of the princely patrons of cricket was the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram. Short and fat, with large, owl-like spectacles masking a round face, "Vizzy" resembled Billy Bunter, the overweight schoolboy of Frank Richard's school stories. He looked like Billy Bunter, and, alas, played cricket like Billy Bunter too. But he threw his money at the sport and had a craving to lead India. After years of intriguing, he finally achieved his ambition in 1936, when he was appointed captain of the Indian team to tour England ahead of C.K. Nayudu.
Vizzy insisted on playing all matches, including the Tests, disregarding a petition by the senior players that he follow the example of Porbandar in 1932 and step down in favour of Nayudu. The team was badly led, and carried a passenger in its captain. What runs Vizzy made were a consequence of charity and corruption. In his History of Indian Cricket, E.L. Docker tells the story of a county match before which Vizzy gifted a gold watch to the opposing skipper. "I gave him a full toss and a couple of long hops," recalled the recipient, "but you can't go on bowling like that all day, not in England."
Halfway through the tour Vizzy sent back the team's finest all-rounder, Lala Amarnath, for "insubordination". The captain detested C.K. Nayudu: he could not drop him, but rewarded one player, Baqa Jilani, with a Test cap because he had insulted Nayudu in front of everybody else. When Vijay Merchant started scoring centuries his jealous captain instructed his opening partner, Syed Mushtaq Ali, to run him out.
Riven by discord, the Indians played well below their potential, losing two out of three Tests. At the end of the tour, the great English cricketer Jack Hobbs remarked that "with all the keenness and skill I have noted, India will never rise to the status of a leading cricket country until all political and religious rivalries are forgotten on the field."
Hobbs knew Vizzy well. Indeed, he had even been briefly on his payroll, when, in the winter of 1930-31, the Maharajkumar induced him and his opening partner Herbert Sutcliffe to come to India and play a round of matches under his colours. From this winter's cricket comes the best of all Vizzy stories. In a match at Delhi's Roshanara Club, Jack Hobbs had got to 94 when he was involved in a horrible mix-up with his partner and skipper. The Englishman cheerfully allowed himself to be run out. When Vizzy asked why he had done this, Hobbs replied: "To let you to play for your 100, Your Highness. I have made plenty of those." The tragedy was that even with the lollipop bowling supplied to Vizzy by a pliant, and sometimes bought-up, opposition, His Highness's all-time highest score in any form of cricket was 24.
Like many small men, Vizzy was fired by a furious ambition, in this case made more furious by his envy of the first princely patrons of Indian cricket, the House of Patiala. Their work for the game is described in Richard Cashman's Patrons, Players and the Crowd. As early as the 1890s, Maharaja Rajendra Singh of Patiala had assembled a crack team, containing professionals from England and the best Indian players from Bombay and beyond. The tradition was continued by his son, Bhupendra Singh, and his grandson, Yadavindra Singh.
Now unlike Vizzy, the Maharajas of Patiala could play cricket too: all three were batsmen of ability, with a penchant for the cover drive. And they also had deeper pockets: they ruled over the richest state in the Punjab, while poor Vizzy was only a junior prince of an obscure Andhra State. But what he lacked in money and sporting prowess, he made up in shrewdness. He shamelessly flattered his social superiors, beginning with the Vicerory, Lord Willingdon. Thus, in the mid-1930s, when Patiala fell foul of the British Raj, Vizzy had ingratiated himself with Willingdon, his reward the captaincy of the 1936 tour of England.
Despite their often manifest lack of ability, the Maharajas helped nourish Indian cricket in its formative years, keeping talented players on their payroll and running Ranji Trophy teams more-or-less on their own. In this respect we owe them all, even Vizzy, a very large debt indeed. I have heard it said that without the support of the Maharajas and Nawabs, Indian classical music would not have survived into the 21st Century. Nor, perhaps, would have Indian cricket.
The writer is the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket.
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