With a striking symmetry, the two best Test teams in the world open their contest at Lord’s, the home of the game, to contest the 2000th Test match in the history of the game, the 100th contest between England and India themselves. The greatest modern exponent of the art of batting, India’s Sachin Tendulkar, on 99 international hundreds, looks to complete a century of centuries.
England at Lord’s are indelibly associated with the game’s history and traditions, while India now pioneer the game’s global future, the sub-continent now being the epicentre of the money, the razzmatazz and indeed the misgovernance too of the modern game. But it is not a question of the past versus the future. Modern England and modern India are worthy competitors. England’s impressive ascendancy down under against Australia last winter makes them best placed to challenge visitors who enter the lists as both World Cup holders and the number one ranked side. It is easy to forget too that India’s emergence as a cricketing superpower is quite recent – dating perhaps from their giantkilling victory in England over the mighty West Indies in the 1983 World Cup. India come to Lord’s only ever having won one Test match on the ground, in 1986, though it is fifteen years since they have lost a Test series in England.
If England versus India is the most obvious lens through which to understand the evolution of cricket, it could equally be argued that it would be impossible to understand either modern England or modern India without knowing about the way in which the relationships between us have indelibly shaped both of our societies.
Those relationships have taken many forms – of domination and struggle, and of friendship and fraternity. What cannot be denied is that they have helped to make us the societies that we are today.
I will be reminded of that when I take my Dad to a day at the Oval for the final test. He will be cheering for India; I will be cheering for England. I was already supporting England when Norman Tebbit proposed his famous ‘cricket test’ when I was 16. That created a dilemma for me, as my leftish views were taking shape. If I kept cheering for David Gower and Ian Botham was I now endorsing Margaret Thatcher? But it proved too late to change sides. I stuck with England – but was a bit less vocal now, in case anybody might think I was a Tebbitite.
In hindsight, the cricket test also captured a way in which the British right had begun to change for the better on issues of race and identity. It was still only a generation since Enoch Powell had feared that it was all but impossible for anybody to be of Asian or black and yet to be truly British. Norman Tebbit was ready to accept as integrated those who were willing to cheer for the right time. Perhaps it was progress too.
Still, the cricket test was always weak on its sporting history. No Tory Unionist should want to insist on sporting allegiance as a condition of citizenship. One glance at Murrayfield and the Cardiff Arms Park, and Tebbit was surely arguing for the break-up of Britain.
The Tebbit claim that British subjects showed a lack of loyalty and allegiance if they cheered for India at cricket, cannot easily explain the history of cricket either.
Why India was granted Test status while part of the Empire? Tebbit can surely not think that the King of England, claiming allegiance as Emperor of India too, was conceding the case for Indian independence by attending India’s first official Test match at Lord’s in 1932, doubtless anticipating that his English and Indian subjects would now cheer their rival teams.
The question of whether India’s national status would bolster the Empire or boost the independence movement was contested – with rival hopes and fears on both sides.
The resonant meanings that we choose to find in sport have often eluded the desires of political propagandists of all types.
And never more so than in the hilariously ineffective campaign of self-styled Indian patriots who have been fighting perhaps the world’s most ludicrous losing battle – in their insistence on rejecting the game of cricket as un-Indian. It is an argument entertainingly traced in Ramachandra Guha’s excellent ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport’.
Rarely can anybody have been so wrong with such confidence as B.V.
Keskar, the General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee, speaking in 1946, almost on the eve of Indian independence about how he could see “no future” for the younger generation in a game that was nothing “but a sign of our utter slavery” and “tendency to copy blindly the habits of English civilisation, and ape the likes and preferences of the ‘English gentleman’.
“Cricket can only thrive in the atmosphere of English culture, English language and English rule. It will never be able to survive the shock of the disappearance of British rule from our country. With the fall of British power, it is bound to lose its place of honour and slowly grow out of date”.
Well, maybe one day.
India’s Hindu nationalists have never quite given up this quixotic attempt to root out this alien cricketing influence from their society.
M.S. Golwaker – founder of the RSS and with a good claim to be the intellectual godfather of the Hindu nationalist BJP party – kept campaigning on the issues in the decades after independence.
The costly game of cricket, which has not only become a fashion in our country but something over which we are spending crores of rupees only proves that the English are still dominating our mind and intellect.
The cricket match that Pandit Nehru and other MPs played some years back was the very depth of this Anglicism. Why could they not play Kabaddi, our national game, which has been acclaimed by several countries as a great game?
I have nothing against Kabbadi but it is cricket that will grip Indian attention this week.
So may the best team win.
Though I’ll be hoping that’s England.
This post was originally published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com.