A common scene on the village greens of Kent in the 1940s
A common scene on the village greens of Kent in the 1940s
Where was cricket first played in India? Which village match was interrupted by an air raid? Cricketing excavations from Gujarat and Kent
When I was a boy my parents told me the first cricket match I ever attended - between two English villages in Kent - was interrupted by a dogfight between Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Later, when a college student in Baroda in Gujarat, I was told by my old teacher Chanchi Mehta that the first cricket played in India was along the shoreline near Surat.
Cricket has a store of stories, some told and retold, others never told. I am probably one of those who has spent a lifetime scribbling because as a boy it became clear I was incompetent at pretty well everything I tried: to adapt the old adage, those who can, do; those who can't, write.
Cricket, for example. I loved cricket but was so shortsighted I could not see the ball, my sole batting stroke a forward poke. At least using a pen I can manage a few late cuts. I had a good education in literary and historical studies, and those studies had originally been incorporated into the educational system at the same time as the rise of the detective story: Sherlock Holmes has a lot to answer for; even the Dr Watsons such as I cannot resist following the clues and trying to solve the putative mysteries.
So what about those two cricketings my elders told me about? What happened when the Luftwaffe interrupted the village match? Where was the first cricket played in India and by whom? My research into that 1721 game was by way of tribute to my old teacher in Baroda, and that into the 1940 match a similar tribute to my journalist father - as well, possibly, as a search for a fragment of my own irrecoverable childhood, being then little more than a small creature on my parents' shoulders.
World War II stalled international cricket but did not deter the common fan: a game on a blitzed site in Blackfriars, London in 1945 testifies
© Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images
World War II stalled international cricket but did not deter the common fan: a game on a blitzed site in Blackfriars, London in 1945 testifies © Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images
At any time during my parents' lifetimes I could have asked them and many others about the match our village, Farningham, played at Shoreham in the Darent valley in August 1940, but 70 years on, all of them were dead. The story was lost. Almost.
My first piece of luck was finding the scorebook. Years before, I had seen it in the pub at Shoreham kept by four generations of a cricketing family named (happily) Summerfield. But they were long gone, somewhere down on the Weald, the original home of cricket. Several numbers into Summerfields in the telephone book, I found the fifth generation: they still had the scorebook.
Scores: Farningham (playing one short) 80 for 5 with one opening batsman retired. Shoreham, 106 for 9. The invaluable ball-by-ball record of the match included a unique thickly scored pencil line in the home side bowling analysis, denoting the air-raid interruption to the match, but there was no mention of a declaration to account for Farningham's foreshortened innings.
Play held up by war: the Shoreham v Farningham scorebook from 1940
Play held up by war: the Shoreham v Farningham scorebook from 1940 © Sandhya
This curiosity of the scoresheet was explained by an item my cousin luckily discovered in the local newspaper for the following week. Under the heading "Raid Stopped Play" there was an anonymous censored report (all names eliminated) but clearly written by my father about this match.
The players, intent on the game, had not heard the air-raid siren nor the sounds of an aerial battle to the north that caused an umpire to halt proceedings at the end of an over. Retiring to the pavilion, four of the visiting Farningham players, including the captain, who was batting, declared that, as members of the newly formed Home Guard, they should return home to deal with the (usually incendiary) fallout from the raid. Shoreham lost only one player, a "special constable".
Having failed to invade England that summer, the Nazis were about to begin the Blitz of London. A fine day for cricket was also a fine day for 300 German planes to launch a raid up the Thames. Although Kent was littered with discarded bombs and crippled aircraft after such raids, the remainder of the depleted Farningham team obviously decided it was at least as important to see off Shoreham as the Germans. My father's article blamed Hitler for their eventual defeat.
The author indulges in a spot of umbrella-assisted cricket in Tankari Bunder, where, one deduces, the game goes back a long way
The author indulges in a spot of umbrella-assisted cricket in Tankari Bunder, where, one deduces, the game goes back a long way © Rani
Details of a cricket match in 1940 are still within reach: to discover anything about cricket in India in 1721 is more difficult. No scorebook, no newspaper reports. No maps, few documents. The cricket receives only a mere mention in a book written by a rather unreliable able seaman, Clement Downing.
While Downing says nothing about the actual cricket in his book, A History of the Indian Wars - which details naval life on the west coast of India while the Marathas challenge Mughal power and the East India Company clings on to little Bombay - he says a lot about the circumstances of it.
Downing tells of a naval expedition in the Gulf of Cambay that, having missed the spring tides that would have taken them into Cambay, was forced to lay up for nearly a fortnight at a place where they diverted themselves with cricket and other exercises. Downing got many Indian names wrong and threw historians with his reference to a non-existent Gujarati place called Chimnah/w, about 30 miles from Cambay. The details of its hydrography, combined with two other references he makes to the place, determine that he can only be talking about the cotton-producing Jambusar pargana (sub-division) with its port at the Tankari bunder on the Dhadhar river.
Two country-built ships, the Company sloop the Emilia, on which Downing was serving as a lieutenant, and the Hunter galley, were sent in December 1721 to protect small merchant vessels from further attack by "pirates" - Kolis from Sultanpur and other local Kathiawar navies. The East India Company records from Surat (though incomplete) and Bombay support our guesswork.
But who was playing? We know from Company records the Emilia had a complement of 20, of which Downing tells us three were "white men". The Hunter had a complement of 80, and we might again expect a common ratio on the country craft of seven Indians to one European. Given that the two captains took some men up to Cambay in a gallivat, we might guess there remained on the riverside some 20 or so Europeans and 40 or more Indians.
The gentlemen of Surrey and Kent playing cricket at Knole Park, Kent, the home of Lord John Sackville, in 1775
© Culture Club/Getty Images
The gentlemen of Surrey and Kent playing cricket at Knole Park, Kent, the home of Lord John Sackville, in 1775 © Culture Club/Getty Images
All this information is necessary because historians have assumed only English sailors played in this instance. It may be so. Or it may not. Apart from the overwhelming number of Indians, consider for a moment Downing's remark that the cricket was part of a whole series of exercises and that these went on for nearly a fortnight.
Although the game of cricket was only just emerging from the shadows in England at this time - as the gentry started to lay bets on individual matches - the earliest references to it have it as the leading part of other "plays". This is true too of country fairs like that at Meopham in Kent. Kent's first big aristocratic patron, Lord John Sackville, not only promoted individual matches but also cricketalia (cricket and other things).
On the banks of the Dhadhar, cricket was apparently the leading one of many exercises. Were the exercises drill or recreation? All Indians residing in Bombay at this time were required to do bi-monthly drills - unless, as conscientious objectors, they paid a hefty indemnity. Paid servants in the Company's marine would surely be required to take part in all the exercises.
How formal was the cricket? The earliest surviving records of Company cricket (dating from a full century later) show Indians and Brits playing cricket together in teams captained by junior officers, but while it is possible that the Dhadhar saw Lieut. Rathbone's XI v Lieut. Stevens XI, it was probably a great deal more informal. Cricket, though already played in teams of 11, was a matter, as a Swiss traveller to England put it in 1728, of men going into a large open field (without boundaries) and knocking a small ball about with a piece of (curved) wood.
The Company's men fully expected a raid to stop play. Instead the Kolis, and no doubt other communities as well, came down every day to watch. At a time when, as Downing shows, the Kolis invariably figured as the object of punitive expeditions, the cricketing proved so disarming that the Company's men (including their own Kolis) set off in search of Christmas provisions and treat and trade to everyone's satisfaction.
Although one of the interpreters (perhaps officiously) warned that several Kolis wielding swords meant them mischief, there is no evidence of it. Cricket fans might be tempted to believe that the Kolis, like their near-namesake Virat Kohli, were simply practising the sweeping strokes they had been observing all fortnight.
Cambay as she lay in the late 17th century
Cambay as she lay in the late 17th century © Rijksmuseum
There may even be a link between our two cricketings. Dartford, the town at the end of the Darent valley where the 1940 match was played, was said in 1723 to have the best cricketers in England. It is also the town where the Darent runs into the Thames and it was along this Kent shore that crews were recruited for the East Indiamen: cricket on the Dhadhar could well have originated with men from these parts.
Shoreham itself appears among the earliest references to cricket, in court records: in the 17th century the only notice taken of the people's game is when the Law (concerning trespass, rape or the sabbath) is broken. Matches such as ours provide glimpses of the lost history of ordinary people, whether Kentishmen or Kolis. As it happens, on both these occasions the cricket presents itself as a preferable alternative to war, the staple of official history.
John Drew is a poet and tutor in Cambridge. Among his obscure works are two booklets on cricket's lost stories, Raid Stopped Play and When Cricket First Came to India
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