As is evident from the popularity of the Bombay Pentangular, interreligion rivalry in cricket was fierce in pre-Independence India. The first All-India team to England in 1911 was selected by a committee of seven members, chaired by redoubtable British cricketer “Jungly” Greig. The panel also comprised two Parsees (JM Framjee Patel and ME Pavri), two Hindus (Chunilal V Mehta and VJ Naik), and two Muslims (Ibrahim Rahimtulla and Ameeruddin Tyabji). The team was eventually led by a Sikh, Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, and represented all religions. Things did not change much over the next two decades. The next Indian team to tour England, in 1932, consisted of seven Hindus, five Muslims, four Parsees and two Sikhs. The Hindus included the captain, the Maharaja of Porbandar, and the vice-captain, KS Limbdi, both of whom were essentially non-cricketers.
The first Sunday
For centuries, there had been no cricket on Sundays – for cricket was mostly played by Christian nations. When Test matches were planned, the organizers ensured that the rest day fell on a Sunday. The first five Test-playing nations – England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, and New Zealand – all adopted this practice. In India, however, there were no qualms about cricket on Sundays.
When Vizzy brought Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe to play for his personal team, a match was scheduled for November 23, 1930 – a Sunday – against Sporting Union in Calcutta. While Sutcliffe played, Hobbs “did not wish to do anything which might injure Christianity in India” and opted out. However, when India hosted their first ever Test at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1933/34, the England team did not object to playing on a Sunday which fell on the third day of the match. This was the first time Test cricket was played on the day of the Sabbath. As if to commemorate the occasion, debutant Lala Amarnath became the first Indian to score a Test match hundred on that Sunday. The other two Test matches of that series – in Calcutta and Madras – also featured cricket on Sundays.
The Pongal test
Between 1959/60 and 1987/88, Madras hosted 12 Test matches, all during Pongal, which usually falls early in January. The only other Indian city that can boast of anything similar is Calcutta, which hosted twelve New Year’s Test matches.
Unity in diversity
The first Indian team featured four Hindus, four Muslims, two Parsees and a Sikh, making it the first time four religions were represented in an XI in the history of Test cricket. The Indian team against England at Bombay in 1961/62 went a step ahead: there were six Hindus (ML Jaisimha, Vijay Manjrekar, Budhi Kunderan, Ramakant Desai, Vasant Ranjane, VV Kumar), two Sikhs (the brothers, Kripal and Milkha Singh), a Parsee (Nari Contractor), a Christian (Chandu Borde) and a Muslim (Salim Durani). There would be several subsequent instances of an Indian XI featuring five religions. The first time the Indian team represented only one religion was in the Edgbaston Test of 1979, almost half a century after their first Test match. This is in stark contrast with most other Test-playing nations, whose early XIs were dominated by one religion.
Ganesh Chaturthi, 1971
The story is so fantastic that it seems incredible that Bollywood has never made a movie on it. Until 1971, India had never won a Test match in England (they had drawn 4 – twice because of rain – and lost 15). In 1971, India was saved by rain in the first two Test matches (though they probably walked away with honours even at Lord’s). Then, at The Oval, England secured a 71-run first-innings lead. The fourth day of the Test match coincided with Ganesh Chaturthi, and local Indian fans arranged for Bella, a three-year-old elephant from Chessington Zoo, to parade around the ground at lunch. England collapsed for 101. India scripted history the next day with what is possibly their most famous win.
A ban on cricket
In 1998, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati Maharaj, the 145th Jagadguru Shankaracharya of the temple in Puri, Orissa, asked Indians, particularly Hindus, to quit cricket, unless cricket balls were manufactured from alternative materials. Cricket balls, after all, were made of cowhide.
The Tendulkar temple
At the time of writing this book, a Google search on “god of cricket” returned Sachin Tendulkar. It has been the same for years. There have been other great cricketers, but no other player has been honoured with that title anywhere in the world. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before someone constructed a Tendulkar temple. The temple, built after Tendulkar announced his retirement in 2013, in Atarwalia village, Kaimur District, Bihar, boasts of an 850 kg life-size marble statue of the cricketer holding the 2011 World Cup.
Visakhapatnam hosted the second ODI of the 2018/19 India–West Indies series. A few days before the match, the pitch curators performed a pooja at the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium. While that is not uncommon, two things stood out. First, it featured MSK Prasad, one of very a handful of Andhra cricketers to play for India, and at that point the chair of selectors. And secondly, the pooja was performed on the pitch.
For all that it mattered, the match ended in a tie.
Kohli speaks up
In 2021, India lost to Pakistan for the first time in the history of the T20 World Cup. The Indian cricketers were abused on social media, perhaps the digital version of burning effigies on the streets. Unlike his ten teammates, Mohammed Shami – the only Muslim in the XI – was labelled a traitor.
In the press conference ahead of India’s next match against New Zealand, captain Virat Kohli slammed the trolls. He labelled them “spineless”, and said that targeting someone over their religion was “the lowest level of human potential that one can operate at.”
Excerpted with permission from The Great Indian Cricket Circus: Amazing Facts, Stats and Everything in Between, Joy Bhattacharjya and Abhishek Mukherjee, HarperCollins India.