Cricket in the age of Empire

Motley crew: the All India cricket team that toured England in 1911. Palwankar Baloo is seated on the ground Getty Images

On page 168 of Cricket Country, a thoroughly researched, detailed account of the 1911 All-India team to tour England, comes a six-degrees-of-separation link. There would of course still be cricket journalists alive today who have had some form of contact with India's first Test team, from 1932. Some older ones have known a few of the squad members personally, and other, younger, colleagues have spoken to sons or daughters of those players. But to go all the way back to Indian players of 1911? Before the first civilian flight, the First World War, Gandhi's return to India, Jallianwala Bagh. So long ago, from a time melted, as author Prashant Kidambi writes, into a "fuzzy pre-history".

But a connection with 1911 does come, in the form of the memory of a boy 13 years old at the time: "One can see Baloo even now, the short easy run… always the unbuttoned cuff of his flannel shirt dangling at the wrist, always the batsmen dangling in his mind where to play the ball and when. "

This was from AFS Talyarkhan's July 1955 obituary in the Bombay Chronicle of Palwankar Baloo, slow left-arm bowler and the 1911 squad's stellar performer. The same Talyarkhan whose acerbic columns were later sent to the newspaper Mid-Day, my first employer. For nine months, before he died, I dealt with the legendary commentator's pieces, and he had seen Baloo, arguably the most exceptional cricketer produced by India, one who stood stereotype and convention on their head.

Baloo, a central figure in Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field, an exploration of Indian cricket history, was a Dalit whose excellence at cricket shook every establishment he ran into and had them bend previously iron-clad caste rules to get him to play in their XI. He belonged to a family of outstanding athletes (the four Palwankar brothers were competitive cricket and hockey players across Bombay tournaments). After retirement he became a political activist for Dalit rights. In 1911 he was a titan, without whom victories could not have been crafted in England.

The first All-India team, which toured England that summer, was drawn from the three sectarian units that constituted Indian cricket back then: Parsis (six players), Hindus (five - one each from Madras, Mysore, Bombay, and two Dalits from Poona) and Muslims (three from Aligarh). They were led by a Sikh royal, the ruler of the princely state of Patiala.

The Parsis had been the first cricketers to travel out of India, with two tours of Britain in the 1880s. After a tour failed to get going in 1903, with social unrest growing around British rule in India, the Indian elite sought to re-establish a bond between ruler and ruled. Renewed plans for a tour to England began as a mission to encourage fraternity with the Empire establishment in London (and no doubt to maintain business interests and influence).

The book places the 1911 tour in the context of its times and environment, when the British empire was at its peak, London was the centre of the world, and the Edwardian era of excess and opulence played itself out during the coronation of George V. Cricket Country is a formidable piece of scholarship that recreates the time in staggering detail.

We learn about shenanigans in the Patiala court and the indifference of the regal captain to his team's requirements on tour. There are Indian complaints about the scheduling of fixtures (having to play the strongest counties at the start, which led to ten consecutive defeats), problems with food, and the disappointment of spectators when the players turned out in regular flannels and not some exotically oriental gear.

There appear in cricketer-journalist and India enthusiast Edward Sewell's weekly dispatches to the Times of India sly allegations of bias in the Parsi management's handling of the Hindu players. Or as Kidambi dryly describes it, "the inveterate British tendency to stir up trouble between the subjects of the Raj".

We run into key figures of history with casual frequency: Baloo is garlanded by nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak at an event in Poona following his performances against the Europeans. Influential businessman Dorabji Tata, one of the prime supporters of the tour, is recorded as sending Rs 25,000 as donation to support Mohandas Gandhi's protest movement for the rights of Indians in South Africa. An upcoming Bombay barrister called Muhammad Ali Jinnah is among the many reputable guests at the banquet held to bid the team farewell. On their return, the Palwankar brothers are feted at a public reception in Mumbai as icons of the "Depressed Classes"; the main address at the event is given by a young man named Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Of cricket folk elsewhere, we meet Syd Barnes, Douglas Jardine and Jack Hobbs, as well as the great Australian cricketer, coach and event manager, Frank Tarrant.

Cricket Country is not a book about Indian cricket alone. It is about the intersection of cricket with India, colonisers and colonised, royalty and commoners, and the pulls and strains of society during a period in the country's cricket history previously unfamiliar to us.

A lot may have changed but some familiar themes remain. Kidambi points out the enduring "superstar culture", in how the tour organisers craved validation from Ranjitsinhji, who wanted nothing to do with it. The teacher-pupil relation between English and Indian cricket has long dissipated, yet the clichés about the "oriental" cricketer generously sprinkled through the British press then continue to pop up today (though far fewer in number). And the desire to make a good buck off a cricket tour has never died.

What Indian cricket meant to its people in 1911 is very different to what it does today; what remains undeniable is that it has always meant much.

The casual cricket reader might be weighed down by the degree of detail but Cricket Country is a hike through a landscape of diverse riches. In the end there is a chance to reflect on what has come to pass.

In the last chapter, which recounts the post-tour lives of the 1911 team members, we learn that batsman Mukund Pai died aged 66 in his neighbourhood of Chikalwadi in Bombay in August 1948. Less than a year later Chikalwadi welcomed the birth of a boy who would go on to become a formidable, world-beating batsman and give Indian cricket a badge of pride. Sixty years after 1911, the career of Sunil Gavaskar was to add more heft to a prediction made in an 1892 Bombay newspaper that cricket in India, which, it said, should have been "merely a pastime", was going to be "regarded" as the "business of life".

Cricket Country - the Untold History of the First All India Team
By Prashant Kidambi
Penguin Random House
453 pages, Rs 699