IIt has been nearly two decades since A Corner of a Foreign Field was published. The importance (not to say genius) of Ramachandra Guhas’ work was immediately understood, and the subtitle An Indian History of a British Sport perfectly summed up its pioneering perspective. Here was a social history of the game that met and challenged the still-lingering look of English colonialism in Asia, as profound and as timely, if not quite as radical, as CLR Jamess Beyond a Boundary had been in the 1960s.
A week before Guhas’ monumental work was published, in July 2002, India had chased England 325 to win a tempting closing final of the NatWest Series with three balls left, and Sourav Ganguly had taken off his shirt and put it around his head on the balcony of the Lords. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman stood alongside Tendulkar as batting superstars, while Virender Sehwag prepared to join them. No cricket fan of the era could have been aware of the depth of the Indian love affair with the game. Yet few outside the subcontinent were fully aware of how quickly and irrevocably it was changing the dynamics of the global game or predicted the massive restructuring it would lead to.
Last September Guha published a new cricket history, this one is much more personal. The Commonwealth of Cricket is a memoir of his lifelong obsession with the game, with a more parochial feel, gently meandering along the private timeline of eminent historians, following the antics of family, friends and personal heroes. It starts in the far corner of Dehradun, where his uncle Durai is a local legend for his one-armed at bat, and continues to Bengaluru, where Guha develops his effervescent dedication to the Karnataka team, and the anecdotes are filled with the two famous names Sunil . Gavaskar, GR Viswanath and Bishan Bedi often have and more local heroes.
Not surprisingly, it is delightful to read, but it also carries a political message, albeit in a different way from A Corner of a Foreign Field. Guha, who took part in this week’s protests in Bengaluru against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi by Indian governments, presumably chose Jack Fingleton’s opening line with concern: The longer I live, the less nationalistic I become.
In the past year, in the light of Black Lives Matter, cricket has had to rethink the role it played in imperial expansion and colonial oppression, to look at a sporting history of uncomfortable truths and treacherous legacies. And while the game grapples with the modern implications of these issues, how to make itself more open and welcoming, how to forge the story from different perspectives, it could do worse than consider Guhas’ latest offering, which reminds us how to democratize our love for sport can (and should?) be.
White supremacy, racism and patriarchy are ancient and current forms of oppression, Guha says from Bengaluru. But talking about one category of black versus white, rich versus colony, I always find problematic. The greatest decolonizer in cricket history was CLR James, but even his book contains what he learned from and liked about English culture. That’s where I come from.
The Commonwealth of Cricket concludes that a certain national chauvinism is endemic to cricket, Guha says, that most fans never outgrow. His uncle Durai always complained that while Graham Goochs and David Gowers were immortalized in the cricket cannon for centuries against the mighty West Indian teams of the 1980s, Gavaskar had scored a whopping 13 hundred against those same teams. Had he been an Englishman, how many books could have been written about this?
But for Guha, decolonizing the game’s history should not lead to nationalization.
The danger is that India is all about the business of the Indian cricket team and superstars. We have to write the history of Indian cricket from places other than Bombay which was the traditional epicenter of cricket, we should bring in women’s cricket, club cricket, college cricket and school cricket. The danger in world cricket is that India will become what England once was a kind of jingoistic, pre-eminent superpower.
Guha is outspoken about his concerns about game administration in India, including what he sees as financial conflict and nepotistic appointments. The final chapters of his book describe his experience as a member of the committee appointed to oversee greater transparency within the Board of Control for Cricket in India and his resignation when he felt that not enough change was taking place.
He remains critical of both propagandist media around Indian cricket and the games closely associated with the ruling BJP party (since the book’s publication, Jay Shah has been the secretary of the BCCI and the son of the Indian Home Secretary, Amit Shah, has been appointed president of the Asian Cricket Council). And yet Guha is pretty sure that this will be the last time he will write a cricket book, having written and edited more than half a dozen during his career.
After all, he says, writing about the game is a very different prospect at a time when every game is televised and replayed every moment. My sensitivity was formed when there was no TV and no reruns, Guha says with a smile. I wrote about actions that no one had seen, and about players from the past that young people did not know. Everyone knows how Tendulkar hit, but when I was writing my audience didn’t know how Viswanath or Gavaskar hit, or how Syed Kirmani kept wicket.
This is an excerpt from Guardians’ weekly cricket email, The Spin. Visit this page and follow the instructions to register.
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