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The Twenty-Two Yards Which United and Divided the Nation

Written by: Femi Ivan /Edited by: Saskia Alais

273 million

This was the number of people from all over the globe who in 2019 watched the Cricket World Cup match played between India and Pakistan. Matches between these two teams have always attracted huge audiences and carries symbolic importance to both the countries. Importantly, the magnitude of this euphoria provides a space for these nations to seek glory and a better status in the world. This leads me to ask:

How has cricket, a sport with English origins and a sign of enduring colonial legacy, become an important sphere to evoke nationalist sentiments in a country like India with multiple and conflicting identities?

In order to answer this question, it is impossible to do so without exploring the evolution of Indian national identity in parallel with the evolution of cricket as an important instrument of nation-building. The 22 yards cricket pitch came to provide a physical and political space for India to unite themselves in defeating the coloniser in their own game and assert their demand to be treated equally. However, the inherent communal tensions in the country also came to play out on the 22 yards and thus intensified the discourse of the common enemy or the other (Pakistan and also Indian Muslims accused of supporting Pakistan). The close association of cricket with Indian politics from its inception led to the sport becoming an important tool of national identity.

Cricket and Indian Colonial History

The British brought cricket to India in the 18th century as a part of their civilizing mission and to develop better relations between the ruling colonial power and their subjects. In India, the first community who played the sport were the Parsees of Bombay in 1848, who were later followed by members of the Hindu community due to their long-standing rivalry with the Parsees. Muslims joined the game in the 1880s and the fourth team consisted of all the other minor communities in the country. With the British colonial rulers forming a separate team, this led to the beginning of the Pentangular Cricket Tournament that attracted large crowds. Interestingly, although Indian cricket had been divided on communal lines since its inception this did not prove to be a major impediment in the nationalist struggles during its initial years.  

The sport which was brought to the country to civilise the natives and close the gap between the ruler and the ruled failed to achieve this objective. Since the colonisers were unable to give up on their imperial status and behaviour on the cricket pitch, this worsened the relations between the two. For instance, Parsi cricketers were banned from playing for some time when a ball accidently hit the wife of a British constable even though the injury sustained was not fatal. Moreover, the conflictual relationship that the Hindus held towards the British, who unlike the other communal groups were strongly opposed to colonial rule, also played out on the field. In 1916, during a match between Hindus and Englishmen, an English cricketer challenged the decision of the umpire, who was a Hindu named M.D. Pai. Pai remained firm on his decision and asked the English cricketer to leave the pitch. The cricketer later wrote an immoderate letter to the Hindu Gymkhanas (Hindu cricket club) questioning the character and expertise of the umpire. The Gymkhana responded firmly by reminding the English player of his own British attribute of sportsmanship (Guha, 1997: 177).

Picture 2: The first Parsi Cricket Team who toured England in 1886 and to beat the English in the test match. (Hindustan Times, 2017)

Such instances help us to reach two important conclusions. Firstly, cricket was no longer just a sport, the game provided a breeding ground for the British to exercise colonial power. Secondly, the politicisation of the game which occurred in tandem with a growing nationalist movement also allowed Indians to challenge the English in their own game. Cricket provided a physical and political space for the Indians to reaffirm their identity of being equal and thus challenged the discourse of racial superiority present in colonial India.  

‘Cricket is more than a game, It’s a religion’: Communal Divisions and Cricket in India

During the period between 1930 to 1940, the sport which had earlier fostered harmony came to intensify the communal tensions deeply embedded within the country. While the Indian National congress (INC) continued to assert that India was one unified nation that transcends religion, caste, race and ethnicity, it failed to put this into practice. During this period, the Congress Party was dominated by the Hindu community and a large majority of the Muslims joined the rival political group called the Muslim League. The growing religious riots in northern and western parts of the country and the rising popularity of the Muslim League reflected the fact that India was not one nation. Moreover, the rise of the Khilafat Movement organised by the Muslims of British India who wanted to restore the Ottoman Caliphate thus laid the foundation of the two-nation theory.

While Indian cricket was divided along communal lines even before, such tensions did not play out on the pitch. In 1919, the victory of the Hindus against the Muslims did not give rise to immense rejoicing and both teams played the game with the spirit of sportsmanship. Moreover in 1924, the Hindus joined the Muslims to celebrate their victory at the Islam Gymkhana. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who would later go on to become the leader of the Muslim League which demanded a separate nation for the Muslims, spoke about the value of brotherhood between both the communities at the same match (Guha,1998: 186).

However, with the changing political climate communal cricket provided a breeding ground for new nationalist sentiments which was to defeat the other. Cricketers were no longer invited or willing to go to the otherGymkhana to celebrate their opponent’s victory. In 1939, the victory of Hindus in the match was followed with bursting of the crackers, a traditional practice in Indian culture to celebrate political victories. The increasing communal flavour of the tournament thus drew opposition from leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who viewed the Pentangular Tournament as an impediment to India’s national movement against British colonial rule.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition to the Tournament was met by a strong movement to continue the Tournament. For Indians, the Pentangular Tournament was referred to as a tamasha, which in literal sense means a grand carnival or a source of entertainment (Bose,1986: 167). While the cricketers played the game with a spirit of sportsmanship, the fans who identified themselves with different teams on the basis of communal lines became more partisan and greatly attracted to the game. While the Pentangular Movement later came to be replaced with the Ranji Trophy, the communal undertones of the game still continue in the matches between India and Pakistan.  

Conclusion

Despite its colonial and communal roots, cricket continues to be closely associated with the national identity of the country. With the development of satellite televisions, the sport has not only reached to larger audiences but has also been increasingly politicised which reflect the continuing political hostilities between India and Pakistan.

Picture 3: The Indian team sported army-style camouflage flags to pay respect to the armed forces who lost their lives in the Pulwama attack, which led Pakistan to demand the ICC to take action. (The Times of India, 2019)

Cable networks are taking advantage of the popularity of the game by describing the matches between India and Pakistan as Badla, which means revenge (Ugra,2005: 86). Importantly, such hatred is not only portrayed against Pakistan but also against Indian Muslims who are accused to secretly support Pakistan. The growing symbolic importance of cricket means that supporting the Indian cricket team has become synonymous with being a loyal Indian national. This is evident when the right-wing Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackery said, “It is the duty of Indian Muslims to prove they are not Pakistanis. I want to see them with tears in their eyes every time India loses to Pakistan” (ibid).

What began as a medium to assert the right to be treated equally during colonial rule later transformed into a ground for communal tensions and rivalry. The political undertones within the sport which appeals to the Indian audience has contributed towards the popularity of the sport and its close association with the nationalist sentiments of the country. From the freedom struggle and partition to the contemporary political landscape with inherent communal divisions, the 22 yards cricket pitch has been an important symbol of evolving national identity in India.  

Bibliography

Bose, Mihir. “Ranji’s Burden.” In A Maidan View: The Magic of Indian Cricket, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986), pp: 167.

Guha, Ramachandra, “Cricket, caste, community, colonialism: the politics of a great game,” The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.14, No. 1, (1997):174-183. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523369708713971.

Guha, Ramachandra, “Cricket and Politics in Colonial India,” Past & Present, No. 161, (1998): 155-190. https://www.jstor.org/stable/651075.

Media Release. 2019. 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup most watched ever. Accessed on 28 November, 2020 from https://www.icc-cricket.com/media-releases/1346930.

Nair, Nisha. “Cricket Obsession in India: Through the lens of identity theory.” Sport in Society, Vol.14, No.5, (2011):569-580. https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2011.574351.

Ugra, Sharda. “Play together, live apart: Religion, politics and markets in Indian cricket since 1947.” In Cricket and National Identity in the Postcolonial Age, edited by Stephen Wagg, 77-94. Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Pictures

1) Image 1 – Vasu, 2019. Virat Kohli at World Cup 2019. [Online] The Print. Available from: https://theprint.in/sport/here-are-the-15-likely-to-lead-indias-charge-under-virat-kohli-at-world-cup-2019/221467/. Accessed on: 4th December 2020.

2) Image 2 – Sakaria, 2017. Mumbai’s Parsis were the first to play cricket in India. [Online] Hindustan Times. Available from: https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/mumbai-s-parsis-were-the-first-to-play-cricket-in-india/story-u3jPjvgDwYOGSpBOaztcTL.html. Accessed on: 28th November 2020. 

3) Image 3 – Gupta, 2019. India had taken permission from ICC to wear camouflage caps. [Online] The Times of India. Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/cricket/australia-in-india/india-had-taken-permission-from-icc-to-wear-camouflage-caps/articleshow/68340627.cms. Accessed on: 28th November 2020.

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