Mahatma Gandhi, the reluctant batsman

Oct 01, 2017, 15:45 IST | Jane Borges

Once again, a new book throws up a discussion about whether the Mahatma played the field and how he influenced the future of cricket without perhaps having lifted the bat

About a furlong from the house in which Moniya lived, there used to be a chowk, known as Shitala Chowk. On moonlit nights, parties of Hindu and Muslim boys assembled there from different quarters of the city and played games for an hour or so after dinner. Moniya also used to go there... he did not participate in them, but loved to officiate as umpire and saw to it that the rules of the game were strictly observed by those who engaged in them. If anyone played foul, he would politely but firmly put him out of the field. He had a reputation for strict impartiality and everybody respected his award."

When Pyarelal Nayyar recounts this event from Mahatma Gandhi's childhood, it's done with little intent to boast about "Moniya's" cricketing aspirations. In fact, Nayyar, who served as personal secretary to the nationalist leader, doesn't hold back from pointing out how Gandhi's "temperamental dislike for boisterous games," kept him away from all sport.

An ambitious new book, Mahatma on the Pitch (Rupa Publications) by Kausik Bandyopadhyay, professor of history at the West Bengal State University, once again puts the spotlight on Gandhi's association with the game of bat and ball.


The first time Gandhi indirectly affected the sport was in 1930, when he launched the Civil Disobedience Movement with the famous Dandi Salt March. Cricket in India and particularly, the Quadrangular cricket of Bombay were inevitably affected since the tournament was suspended for the next three years. Even Vijay Merchant stayed away from the trials for the selection of the Indian team for its first official Test tour to England in 1932 to show his solidarity with the movement. PIC/GETTY IMAGES 

At the outset, the connection seems bizarre, yet for decades, the thought of Gandhi wielding a cricket bat and walking down the pitch has piqued the curiosity of many. This interest first began in 1958, when Gujarati journalist Harish Booch met Ratilal Ghelabhai Mehta, a classmate of Gandhi at Alfred High School, Rajkot, who remembered his friend as "a dashing cricketer" who was "good both at batting and bowling". That claim may have landed Booch a fresh angle to the story he was chasing, but, it wasn't until 2001, that the flame was fanned again, when historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in a column: "Cricket might not have affected Gandhi, but Gandhi certainly affected cricket." It's the potent nature of this statement that drove Bandyopadhyay's research.

To say that the task at hand was arduous would be undermining the rawness of his subject. That there was zero pictorial evidence to support the claim didn't help. "Once I got on with the work, I found my studies on Gandhi and cricket inadequate, to pull off what I thought I intended to write," says the Kolkata-based writer, who has previously explored the impact of Gandhian nationalism on football in colonial Bengal. "Hence, collecting, reading and re-reading new and old sources began at a hectic pace. The toughest challenge was to go through 98 volumes of Gandhi's collected works," he adds.

The result, however, is yet another fascinating addition to the vast tome on the leader whose 148th birth anniversary we celebrate tomorrow.

Moniya and his bat
If one picks up Bandyopadhyay's book with the expectation of finding answers to whether the Father of the Nation ever played cricket, they'd be disappointed. The writer makes sincere arguments, but Gandhi's connections, if any, with the sport have always appeared vague.

While Mehta and even, Louis Fischer, one of the most renowned western biographers of Gandhi, wrote of how "Mohandas played cricket and also gilli danda" as a child, Nayyar's account reflects otherwise. In fact, in his autobiography, Gandhi wrote, "I never took part in any exercise, cricket or football, before they were made compulsory. My shyness was one of the reasons for this aloofness."

Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of the Mahatma, says that this shyness later translated into regret. "One more reason he could not participate in sports at school was because he had to rush home to nurse his ailing father. The fact that he wasn't athletic as a kid, rankled in his mind," says Tushar, adding that Gandhi made amends by taking to "walking," which he described as "the king of exercises."

However, in the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008, Guha recounts how one of Gandhi's surviving sisters had told Fischer: "He used to have such great interest for those games [cricket and tennis] that he would not remember even his meals… He would not stay at home in the evenings as he would get engrossed in playing."

The contradictions are stark. "But, I think it is this contradictory nature of evidences along with differing readings of his writings that make Gandhi's link with cricket so intriguing," says Bandyopadhyay in an email interview.

His indifference towards the game probably began following his fight against racial persecution of Indians in South Africa, but, his resentment for cricket only came to the fore in his later years, when the nationalist struggle began gaining traction in India. In 1917, during an address to students in Bihar, Gandhi said, "I think games like cricket have no place in a poor country like India.

We have a number of inexpensive games of our own, which afford innocent joy."

"Even before Gandhi had entered the Indian political scenario, the 'puritanism' and 'austerity of Gandhian ethos' along with his adversity towards modern civilization probably made modern entertainment practices an anathema to him. In the context of his non-violent battle against imperialism and social inequality, sports like cricket could simply have been distractions, adversely affecting the quest for freedom," Bandyopadhyay says of the possible reasons for his aversion to the game.

Scoring off the field
Gandhi's changing sentiment for the game apart, the first time he indirectly affected the sport was in 1930, when he launched the Civil Disobedience Movement with the famous Dandi Salt March. Cricket in India and particularly, the Quadrangular cricket of Bombay were inevitably affected since the tournament was suspended for the next three years. Even Vijay Merchant stayed away from the trials for the selection of the Indian team for its first official Test tour to England in 1932 to show his solidarity with the movement, Bandyopadhyay writes.

While cricket in India came to a brief standstill, Tushar cites an interesting anecdote, which took place in 1933-34, when Douglas Jardine's Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team visited India for the first time. "Gandhi was invited to bowl the first ball," he says. There may be little evidence to support this claim, but Gandhi did put his name down as '17' in the 16-member team, when he gave an autograph to Merchant's sister Laxmi.

However, the Mahatma's greatest role was to influence the abolition of Pentangular cricket, one of the most prominent tournaments in the sport's history. Cricket historian Vasant Naisadrai Raiji, 97, the oldest surviving Mumbai first-class cricketer, says that tournament saw teams being formed on communal lines with Hindus, Parsis, Muslims and Christians battling each other on field.

Walkeshwar resident Raiji himself played in the tournament as 12th man for the Hindu team. "I fielded as a reserve, but I never got a chance to bat or bowl for the tournament," the Ranji player reminiscences.

According to Raiji, in 1940, Gandhi, while hinting at the nature of tournament, said, "I am against communalism in all aspects of life." The declaration, he says, became a clarion call to ban the tournament for good. It was eventually abolished in 1946.

"Pentangular cricket was very popular, but its existence only seemed to be a deterrent to India's freedom struggle. There may have been no communal tensions while the games were on, but, with Partition looming large, it had to end," Raiji maintains.

"Whether Gandhi was a reluctant admirer of cricket or not remains a puzzle. But, both [cricket and the Mahatma] are integral to reimagining the Indian nation in the new century. Had Gandhi been alive, he might have been the happiest person to see cricket becoming of a great unifier of hearts in independent India, irrespective of class, caste, religion, ethnicity or region," Bandyopadhyay ends.

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