What do they know of history who only history know?

Three examples that show how sport's impact is underrated

Suresh Menon |

Basil D'Oliveira: a player who triggered South Africa's isolation from the larger world

Basil D'Oliveira: a player who triggered South Africa's isolation from the larger world © Getty Images

It might have been England's first cricket tour, but it was aborted even as the players prepared to cross the channel. "A pitch had been prepared in the Champs Elysees," wrote Frank Keating. But at Dover, the captain announced, "Bad news, chaps, the game's off." It was 1789, the French Revolution was in the air.

On the day the Bastille was stormed, the Earl of Winchelsea was clean-bowled by William Bullen in the Hampshire-Kent match at Hambledon. Many saw a moral in this. The English historian GM Trevelyan spelt it out thus: "If the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt."

Trevelyan wrote that almost a century and a half after the event. It was convenient to believe that cricket had abolished class, with peasants and nobles playing the game together. As the writer Robert Winder said, cricket inspires happy delusions.

Still, the point is not so much about the importance of cricket as its perceived importance. It had a role in society. Yet, Trevelyan himself did not think so while writing a social history of England in the 19th century. As CLR James says in Beyond a Boundary:

"A famous Liberal historian [Trevelyan] can write the social history of England in the 19th century, and two famous Socialists [Raymond Postgate and GDH Cole, The Common People] can write what they declared to be the history of the common people of England, and between them never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for WG Grace."

Have historians shortchanged cricket? There are many histories of cricket. At the turn of the century, Derek Birley wrote A Social History of English Cricket, the story of how the sport was "snatched from rustic obscurity by gentlemanly gamblers and became the latest metropolitan fashion".

This came some four decades after James asked: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" To understand the game, you had to understand, or at least acknowledge, its historical, cultural and social contexts.

A People's History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin and similar books speak of the influence of politics on sport - and might come as a revelation to those who believe that sport and politics do not mix (or even ought not to mix).

Each of these books is a classic, but all of them emphasise the impact of history and culture and economics and politics and personalities on sport. Yes, it helps us understand sport better, to contextualise it, to read into it deeper meanings and discover more profound connotations. In Bad Sports, Zirin writes about how in America, "For a generation now, baseball has been a highly leveraged real estate urban development plan where people happen to play a game." In India, we can think of the IPL as a highly leveraged television serial ideal for selling products where people happen to play a version of a popular game.

Although later Baloo and Ambedkar fought on different sides in an election, the cricketer was the politician's hero. Guha calls Baloo a "pioneer in the emancipation of Untouchables"

Yes, sports do count. But we are loath to concede that the traffic might also move in the opposite direction. It is easy to understand that sport affects economics or that it plays a significant role in the cultural development of a community. But history? No, that would be pushing it too far, we conclude and move on to other things.

Three examples from sport, however, will help us understand sport's impact on history better.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball in America. The impact was rapid and far-reaching. It opened the doors for the ethnic minorities to enter the world of Whites-only sport, but more importantly, hastened the end of segregation. As Michael Mandelbaum, Director of the American Foreign Policy programme at the Johns Hopkins University, put it, "Robinson is an important figure in American history because of the particular, and particularly oppressed, status of African-Americans in the life of the nation and because baseball was the first visible institution in American civil life in which they were able to participate on equal terms with whites."

A couple of decades later, the Cape Coloured cricketer Basil D'Oliveira had an important role to play in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Denied opportunities in his own country, D'Oliveira looked towards England. With help from the commentator John Arlott, he arrived there in 1960 to play league cricket. Six years later, he was playing for England. In 1968, he was chosen for the tour of South Africa. It didn't happen so easily, though.

First, there were attempts to bribe him to withdraw from the tour even before the team was picked. A businessman in South Africa (with the knowledge of Prime Minister John Vorster) offered him a lucrative "coaching" assignment. In England, the MCC secretary Billy Griffith and cricket writer Jim Swanton tried to persuade him to withdraw in the larger interest (i.e. their own). Meetings went on in two countries which initially seemed to have the same plan: keep D'Oliveira out.

The English selectors, despite his knock of 158 in the final Ashes Test at The Oval - the last before the tour - hemmed and hawed, and finally named a standby for the tour, leading to a public outcry. Many felt that England ought not to be told whom to pick or drop by another country. It was seen as cowardice.

Then the medium-pacer Tom Cartwright pulled out through injury, and now D'Oliveira was in the team. The following day, South Africa barred the team from visiting. South Africa's sporting ban began soon after - it was 22 years before the country, now led by Nelson Mandela, was allowed to re-enter international sporting competition. What came to be known as the "D'Oliveira Affair", was according to Mandela, a "decisive phase in his movement's eventual triumph".

Historian Ramachandra Guha understands that sports affects not only the world around it but also the world that lies in the future

Historian Ramachandra Guha understands that sports affects not only the world around it but also the world that lies in the future © Getty Images

The third example is of Palwankar Baloo, a left-arm spinner of "low-caste" origin who led the Hindus and claimed over 100 wickets on the first All India tour of England in 1911.

Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field introduces us to Baloo, whom he calls the first great Indian cricketer. Baloo could not dine at the same table as his team-mates at the Hindu Gymkhana when he started out. He had to drink his tea in a terracotta cup that was then shattered so others wouldn't have to drink from it. Yet, his exploits on the field helped erase some of the prejudices against him and those like him, off the field. When he was dropped from the team, there was a public outcry.

On his return from the successful tour of England in 1911, a function was organised by the Depressed Classes of Bombay to felicitate Baloo. BR Ambedkar gave the welcome speech. Ambedkar would become the greatest of all "lower-caste" politicians and reformers and this was his first public appearance. Although later Baloo and Ambedkar fought on different sides in an election, the cricketer was the politician's hero. Guha calls Baloo a "pioneer in the emancipation of Untouchables".

In his book on cricket and race, Jack Williams asserts that race was at the heart of cricket throughout the 20th century. In India, it wasn't race so much as caste (and class, since the two moved in the same circles) that mattered.

Baloo played his last first-class match in 1920, and Palwankar's brothers - Shivram, Vithal and Ganpat - also played for the Hindus, with Vithal breaking another barrier by captaining the team. If this were a work of fiction, this might be the place to tie it all up by asserting that since then, the caste system has been wiped out in India, that the successors of Baloo, like those who came after Robinson and D'Oliveira, enjoyed the fruits of his work and are liberated.

Sadly, reality lacks the roundedness of fiction. But while admitting this, the efforts of those such as Baloo and Ambedkar and the importance of those early steps cannot be underplayed.

A Corner of a Foreign Field narrates the story with compassion. It could have been a classic of post-caste India, but it is still a post-colonial text and exciting revisionist history. The story was generally ignored by historians because of its origins in cricket, and by cricket writers because it seemed an obscure chapter in history. It took an exceptional writer to reach out between the two stools where the story seemed to have fallen, and bring it to our attention. Here finally was a historian who also wrote with understanding on cricket.

The large canvas helped Guha paint a history of India as told through cricket rather than a history of cricket full of matches and runs and wickets. It asked - and answered - the question: How did this most British of games become so thoroughly domesticated in the subcontinent?

The sociologist Ashish Nandy had provided a glib, attractive one-line answer: "Cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the British." He began his book The Tao of Cricket with this premise, but didn't follow through.

For the social historian, says Guha, mass sport is a sphere of activity that expresses, in concentrated form, the values, prejudices, divisions and unifying symbols of a society. Yet, historians generally ignore it.

It has become a habit to connect the way a country plays its sport - soccer in Brazil, cricket in India - to its national character. When the Indian Ranjitsinhji was charming all England with his batting at the turn of the 20th century, he was so fresh, so daring, so original that a contemporary said he "never played a Christian stroke in his life."

Neville Cardus, never a man to hold himself back when describing a favourite player, wrote, "The light that shone on our cricket fields when Ranji batted was a light out of his own land, a dusky, inscrutable light. His was the cricket of black magic indeed. A sudden sinuous turn of the wrist and lo! the ball had vanished - where? The bowler knowing that he had aimed on the middle stump saw as in a vision the form of Ranji all fluttering curves. The bat made its beautiful pass, a wizard's wand. From the middle stump the ball was spirited away to the leg side boundary."

It was easy for Ranji to inspire poetry. Talent apart, he was a prince, and therefore an exotic eastern gentleman.

Baloo was at the opposite end of the exotic scale. He was an "invisible man", to use the novelist Ralph Ellison's evocative phrase. Princes were noticed, Untouchables were not.

Sport has been viewed through various glasses. Marxists have their interpretations, Dalits too (some point to the number of educated Brahmins who filled the teams and ask if that is a commentary on the poor availability of education and infrastructure for the disadvantaged). But history hadn't been looked at through the glasses of sport.

"I do not support the placing of sports history in a ghetto of its own," writes Guha. "The attempt should be to use ignored or previously marginal spheres, such as sport or gender or environment to illuminate the historical centre itself."

Historian and cricket lover Guha's favourites in the respective fields are both named Thomson. One with a P, as in the social historian EP Thompson, and the other without a P as in AA Thomson. EP Thompson has written about meeting Jawaharlal Nehru as a boy and being asked about his batting technique; AA Thomson has no such crossover story. Both were outstanding writers, but neither could have written A Corner of a Foreign Field. That needed a combination of the Thomsons, and an Indian who asked the question: What do they know of history who only history know?

Excerpted from a talk at "Conversations With Ramachandra Guha: Engaging a Life of Scholarship", a two-day conference in New Delhi in April

Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack