Communal Cricket

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2007, 18:23 [IST]
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Communal Cricket

There are a few things that being an Indian one could be thankful to the British for! 
  They built a super railway network for our vast country
They created fantastic link roads, like the Grand Trunk Road
They gave us English, the link language that people in the cities across state communicate with
They introduced the country to the game of cricket

Now, the last point is of significance here, because now, we all know how cricket has become a life statement for most of us Indians. The game did not get popular overnight, it had to spread throughout the country, and that was not an easy task by any stretch of imagination! It all began more than a 130 years ago in 1877 when the Parsis of the Zoroastrian Cricket Club challenged the European members of the Bombay Gymkhana. It was a well-fought match and both sides were equal. They decided to make this an annual event and in 1878, they played again. But in the years to follow, the ruling Europeans wielded their iron hand and bullied the Parsis and the Hindus of the Bombay Gymkhana by not giving them access to the 'Bombay maidan', the main area to practice the game. They used to play Polo and that ruined the ground for the others to play cricket. But canny as the Europeans were, they saved their part of the maidan the Europeans only Cricket ground". The disputes and misunderstandings continued till 1884 and the matches between the Europeans and Parsis resumed. Soon these matches were given first-class status, with the game in 1892 became one of the earliest first-class matches in India. These annual affairs, gained popularity and in 1900 these encounters were called the 'Presidency Match' and was the highlight of the Bombay Cricketing Calendar.

Cricket as a game was gaining approval of hundreds and soon the other communities were feeling left out. The Hindus in the Bombay Gymkhana had built up a sizable pool of players and in 1906 they invited the Parsis to play a match, but communal differences got in the way, and that ended there. But the Europeans who were always up to show off their presumed supremacy, took on the Hindus. They were stunned to defeat as the Hindus beat them by a margin of 110 runs. One player shone over the others and that was Palwankar Baloo, the left-arm spinner, who belonged to the Dalit. He could not be made captain of the side, because of his caste, but years later his brother Vithal was made the leader of the Hindus, for by then the anti-caste movement in the country was alive. From 1907-1911 a Triangular tournament involving the Hindu and European Bombay Gymkhanas and the Parsis took place, in the month of September.

The Community that was missing was the Muslim part of the Gymkhanas and it was not before long that they were asked to join the Triangular Tournament. The Bombay Quadrangular started in 1912 and the interesting part, was that it carried on right through the duration of World War I. Bad weather forced organizers to shift the event to November/December and in 1917, they introduced neutral umpires to officiate the matches. Prior to this, the Europeans chose the umpires and therefore this new system was considered a fairer deal. This event became extremely popular, but one man was totally against it. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhiji's disliking towards the sport might have stemmed from the fact that the most competitive event – Bombay Quadrangular - in the sport was sadly a communal one.

Gandhiji once said, "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."

But the call to end choosing teams on the basis of religion was not given much importance and by the 1920"s the Gymkhanas were recruiting players from all over the country. Talent was sourced from all over and the popularity naturally grew to all the corners of India. The immense success of the Quadrangular" gave rise to other local tournaments. A Triangular" in Lahore and Quadrangulars" in Nagpur and Karachi were born and this led to the rapid development of cricket throughout the region. But as was expected, issues arose from time to time, and in 1924, when the Hindus wanted to invite a player from Bangalore - P. A. Kanickam, they realised that he was a Christian and was therefore not welcome to join. As a result, Mr Kanickam could not play the game he loved because, the Europeans did not accept Indians, and the Hindus did not accept Christians, the parsis and Muslims had similar reasons. This was communal cricket at it"s best, or if you like at it"s worst.

With the Independence Struggle, fast gaining momentum, in 1930, Gandhiji"s 'Satyagraha' saw a multitude of Indians joining the civil disobedience movement. Many were arrested and as a result the Quadrangular cricket tournament was cancelled. But the game had slowly become the Indians most loved sport, and by popular demand the tournament restarted in 1937, and this time there was an additional team aptly called - 'The Rest'. This team comprised Buddhists, Indian Christians, Jews and the odd player from Ceylon. As luck would have it, the first 'Pentangular', actually ended up being a quadrangular, for the Hindus backed out last minute. The reason sounds very much like what we would call a 'political' issue today. They felt that not enough seats were allocated to them in the new Brabourne Stadium.

The Pentangular tournament did not take off in the way that one would have thought it to. The communal divides within the team came out larger and louder, as the Freedom Movement" was nearing it"s climax. There was infighting and the a cricket tournament where the teams were chosen on the basis of racial and religious grounds, was not helping the bigger cause, which was the Independence struggle. In 1946 the Board of Control for Cricket in India was formed and the first thing that they did was to dissolve the 'Pentangular Tournament' and start a domestic championship that involved teams from various Zones in the nation. That was the order of the day and even today, that is how cricket in India is largely played in the domestic circuit.

Given the sociological times that the game had to pass through, perhaps it was not uncommon to have teams based on race, colour and religion. But thanks to the freedom movement and the overall evolution of the 'Indian thinking mind', this ghastly 'Communal Cricket' syndrome came to an end. But the one thing that everyone in India will thank the 'Ruling Europeans' for, was the fact that they introduced the game of cricket to a nation that worships it today. And thankfully for all the right reasons.


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