In September 1953, a two-day charity cricket match was organised in Delhi to raise funds for the flood victims of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. The match was played between the Prime Minister’s XI and the Vice-President’s XI. Nehru not only captained the PM-XI but also did the commentary for the match.

During the commentary, Nehru remarked, “...I think that those who have come here to watch it have had a good time, and we who have played it have also had a good time in playing a good game in the spirit of the game. We had hard hitting, hurricane scoring, and we have had slogging for hours, and everything in between. And we have had, I think, also on both sides, a desire to play the game in the best way possible. We are out to play the game, not to win or lose so much.”

Both cricket teams included parliamentarians from all parties. More than 700 runs were scored by the teams in two innings for just seventeen wickets. The final result was a draw.

Nehru himself came on the field after four decades and managed to bat and bowl. While in London’s Harrow School, Nehru had played cricket and football, joined a chess club, and also participated in races and a cross-country steeplechase.

Commenting on the noble cause for the cricket match, Nehru told the audience, “We are having it, for the relief of the innumerable people in India who are suffering from floods. It is a noble cause. People really do not know even in India, and much less outside, how terrible the floods have been and what enormous damage the people have had to suffer.”

After the match, the bats and scorebooks used were put up for auction. Nehru again took the lead as the auctioneer. Two items – both bats – from Nehru’s collection were also part of the auction. One was a bat, signed by the players of the cricket teams of India and the West Indies, presented to Nehru in November 1948. Previously, both the teams had played a test match that ended in a draw. The West Indies team was led by John Douglas Goddard why the Indian team was captained by the legendary batsman Lala Amarnath.

The other was a bat with the signatures of the Commonwealth team, which had visited India in 1950. The team, which came on a five-month tour, was led by Les Ames, who was described by Wisden – a cricketing almanack – as the “greatest wicket-keeper-batsman of all time”. The bat was presented to Nehru during the Kanpur match which was played in February 1951.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the Vicerigal Lodge in Shimla in this undated photograph. Credit: Photo Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bachittar Singh, chief of the Delhi State Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Kamlendu Mati Shah, Rajmata of Tehri-Gerhwal, Sardar Surjeet Singh Majithia, the Deputy Minister for Defence, among others participated in the auction.

While the auction was in progress, Nehru reminded those in attendance that the money was meant for flood victims so everyone should contribute generously. On the tragedy of the floods, Nehru said, “These were extraordinarily virulent floods in which thousands of villages were washed away in Andhra, Bihar and the UP. We are deeply moved when we read about natural calamities in far-off Japan and Asia and Europe. But these floods were of a much larger magnitude and they have affected millions of lives.”

In March 1960, the Chandigarh-based newspaper The Tribune published a report titled “Cricket in the Third Five-Year Plan”, regarding the funds allocated to the sport. It was reported that “[Rs] 6 crores had been set aside for cricket out of a total of [Rs] 11.2 crores for sports”.

Following this, Prithvi Singh Azad, a former revolutionary and freedom fighter who was also the director of the Institute of Physical Culture in Saurashtra, wrote to Nehru asking about the facts of the report.

A week later, Nehru’s private secretary Sarva Prakash Khanna responded to Singh clarifying that “there is a proposal to provide ten crore rupees for youth welfare in the education allocations. These will include physical training, labour, and social work camps, sports, and so on”. Khanna also mentioned that the total allocation for sports had yet to be finalised.

During the winter of 1960-’61, the cricket team of Pakistan came to India to play a test series of five matches. It was the second tour of Pakistan’s cricket team to India. All five matches ended in a draw. In November 1960, Nehru sent a message to Kanpur-based industrialist and former member of the Constituent Assembly, Padampat Singhania, who was then the chairman of the Cricket Test Management Committee. Sending his good wishes for the Pakistan and India teams, Nehru wrote in the message:

“The visit of a Pakistan Cricket Team to India is an event of importance to all lovers of cricket and to be welcomed. The Pakistan team is known to be a good one, therefore, they deserve an even greater welcome. I hope that the various matches they will play in India will yield good cricket.”

India and Pakistan fans during a cricket match in Dubai in 2021. Credit: Reuters

In November 1960, Nehru wrote a similar message to another industrialist and cricket administrator, MA Chidambaram, who was then the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Almost a year later, Nehru wrote again to Chidambaram in September 1961. Sending his good wishes to the Marylebone Cricket Club team, which was scheduled to visit India, Nehru welcomed tournaments and tours of foreign cricket teams. He further wrote: “India has made the game of cricket her own…But the success of such visits should be measured from the goodwill they create.”

Nehru was also critical of the unruly behavior of spectators during cricket matches. In 1960-’61, when a test series between India and Pakistan was being played, complaints were raised about the uncivilised behaviour of the crowds.

In February 1961, Nehru received a letter on the matter by Joachim Alva, freedom fighter, lawyer, and journalist from Mangalore. In his response, Nehru mentioned one such incident which he too witnessed during the match.

Nehru wrote, “I agree with you that such behavior as you have mentioned is very bad. During the brief time I was there, I noticed the crowd shouting against one of the Indian players who was fielding at the time. He had unfortunately dropped a catch once or twice. Because of this, whenever the ball went towards him, they shouted. This was reprehensible.”

In this context, Nehru’s message on cricket and sportsmanship became more pertinent. In a message in September 1961 to Chidambaram, the president of the Board of Cricket Control in India, Nehru wrote that “the word ‘cricket’ itself has come to mean in the English language ‘good sportsmanship’. It is in that spirit that cricket, or indeed any game, should be played. We play to win, of course, and try our utmost to do so, but even more than that, we play cricket to maintain the high standards of sportsmanship”.

Shubhneet Kaushik teaches history at Satish Chandra College, Ballia.