SEEING the legendary Farokh Engineer among the spectators at the Old Trafford, with his shock of curly white hair and a Falstaffian girth that seemed to meld nicely with his incorrigibly impish smile, my mind went into the enticing time machine for a rendezvous with the great Parsi cricketers India once flaunted.
Then, the penny dropped.
The 1983 and 2011 Indian cricket teams that won the world cup encompassed what Rahul Dravid would call the country’s cultural colours, which were just about missing in Virat Kohli’s social mix. This is not to say that a cultural mix is necessarily more formidable or that it would have produced a happier result, say, in the critical semi-finals that India lost to New Zealand. In fact, on the flip side of the argument, the all-white South Africans were probably the stronger team in the world on their day, even if few were willing to court them for fear of violating stringent anti-apartheid laws.
The all-black West Indies could be just as invincible on a given outing, but they gained and certainly didn’t lose when Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kalicharan came into the squad with a different colour of skin, just as Makhaya Ntini, Hashim Amla or Imran Tahir among others brought new energy to the post-apartheid South African team.
The link between cricket and the nation was neither natural nor inevitable.
And why forget that even the West Indies inducted a white player in the squad against New Zealand in the 1970s.
And doesn’t it behove mention that the solitary black man in the squad who delivered the crushing blow for the mainly white English team in the nail-biting finals against New Zealand at Lord’s was not even in the national eleven a few weeks earlier?
In the early days of Indian Test cricket, it was a common habit to expect Parsi players of the order of Nari Contractor, Polly Umrigar, Engineer or Rusi Surti to embellish every Indian’s favourite team. It was thus that for a predominantly Hindu country, Kapil Dev’s squad that lifted the first World Cup for India boasted of Roger Binny, Syed Kirmani and Balwinder Singh Sandhu who added to the cherished moment on the world stage, just as Harbhajan Singh, Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan, Yusuf Pathan and Munaf Patel were in the trophy-winning squad in 2011.
One could identify at least two solid players in the Bangladesh World Cup squad who breached its dominant cultural profile. And in a heavily Sinhalese Sri Lanka, where would the team stand without the priceless talent of Muttiah Muralitharan?
Pakistan, where display of majoritarian religion has gained currency for a variety of sociopolitical reasons, Anil Dalpat and Yusuf Youhana had fortified the squad. It is another matter that Youhana discovered greater spiritual solace in embracing the identity of Pakistan’s religious majority.
A country’s approach to inclusivity need not, of course, be worn as a cultural amulet in a thread around the neck. New Zealanders, for example, found a subtler method to express their eclectic cultural expanse — by singing the national anthem in two languages, English and Maori, spoken by the country’s original inhabitants.
We had read in school about Britain’s bold, risky, but often humorous enterprise to initiate the natives of Gilbert and Ellis Islands to cricket. A Pattern of Islands by Sir Arthur Grimble was a regaling story as much as it also informed the reader about the colonial celebration of cultural diversities they tried to encourage and preserve, including by introducing cricket to the remote Pacific islands.
A friend recently forwarded an essay from the BBC’s website by Prashant Kidambi of Leicester University. It offers a brilliant insight into the early efforts of Indian and British elite to stitch together an ‘Indian’ cricket team.
“In this last decade,” Kidambi quotes former cricketer Rahul Dravid as saying in 2011, “the Indian team represents, more than ever before, the country we come from — of people from vastly different cultures, who speak different languages, follow different religions, belong to different classes.”
And yet, the link between cricket and the nation was neither natural nor inevitable.
“It took 12 years and three aborted attempts before the first composite Indian team took to the cricket field in the summer of 1911. And contrary to popular perception — fostered by the hugely successful Hindi film Lagaan — this ‘national team’ was constituted by — and not against — empire.”
The first Indian cricket team sparked great interest in the British press, according to the historian from Leicester. A diverse coalition of Indian elite and British governors (among others) made possible the idea of Indians on the cricket pitch.
The ‘Indian’ cricket team was thus first broached in 1898, inspired by the rise of Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, or Ranji, an Indian prince who bewitched Britain and the wider imperial world with his sublime batting.
The early British ventures failed to put together a team “because of fierce divisions between Hindus, Parsis and Muslims over the question of their representation in the proposed team”.
When they succeeded, the captain of the team was 19-year-old Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, “the pleasure-seeking, newly enthroned maharaja of the most powerful Sikh state in India”.
Others were selected on the basis of religion: there were six Parsis, five Hindus and three Muslims in the side. Palwankar Baloo, the Dalit bowler, was the “first great Indian cricketer”, Kidambi writes.
“The composition of this team shows how in the early 20th-century, cricket took on a range of cultural and political meanings within colonial India.”
Farokh Engineer’s presence in Manchester reminded me of a hair cream the debonair cricketer advertised — and a generation embraced. But he also triggered memories of an interview the great playback singer Asha Bhosle gave. Asked to choose between Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Manna Dey as her favourite legendary duet singers, she said: “You have forgotten Mohammed Rafi.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019