Some educationists are alarmed at comments Anil Swarup, the secretary of school education and literacy, made to The Indian Express in an interview published on April 15.

In the interview, Swarup said that he did not think cricket has a place in history textbooks in schools. He said: “You will be surprised to know that there is a chapter on the history of cricket. Should we have that chapter there? I mean, I’m not an expert, but my feeling is we should not have it.”

A chapter titled History and Sport: The Story of Cricket by historian Mukul Kesavan is part of a section titled “Everyday Life, Culture and Politics” in the Class 9 history textbook, India and the Contemporary World. This chapter has been part of the curriculum since 2006.

Swarup’s comments come at a time the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the top advisory body on matters of curriculum design and textbooks, have invited suggestions for ways to rationalise the school syllabus. As a part of that exercise, explained Swarup in the same interview, the government is “looking at chapters”.

Some educationists fear this could lead to a return to the conventional way of writing history as a litany of dates and events, which encourages rote learning.

Kiran Devendra, who was member secretary of the committee that wrote the current history textbooks for Classes 9 and 10, said she was shocked by Swarup’s comment. “In just two lines, he dismissed the entire thing,” she said. She was referring not just to the chapter on cricket that Swarup had brought up, but also to the reforms in the approach to writing textbooks that had led to the inclusion of cricket in the history textbook in the first place. “Going by just the headline [the title of the chapter] will always be misleading,” she added.

The old approach to history was abandoned when the National Council of Educational Research and Training drew up a set of progressive guidelines for writing textbooks and designing curriculums in 2005. The National Curriculum Framework, 2005, sought to discourage rote learning by making the topic engaging instead. Devendra had been a part of that exercise too.

The reason the chapter on cricket is included in the Class 9 history textbook is explained in the section’s introduction: “History is not just about the dramatic events in the world. It is equally about the small things in our lives. Everything around us has a history – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we hear, the medicines we use, the literature we read, the games we play. All these have evolved over time. Since we relate to them in our daily lives, their history escapes us.”

The chapter traces cricket’s growth from a rural sport born out of other bat-and-ball games in pre-industrial England into the industry it is today, and how that history “was connected to the social history of the time”.

For instance, the duration of each game depended on work schedules and therefore, the Industrial Revolution had an impact on the game. Its rules, favouring batsmen, partly reflect the class divide in Victorian England, where the rich batted and the poor bowled.

The spread of cricket outside England is closely tied to colonisation, and in colonial India, the sport “was organised on the principle of race and religion”.

Devendra spoke to about why cricket – and indeed topics from everyday life – should be retained in school textbooks and why she fears a change in approach will encourage rote-learning. Edited excerpts below.

Why was there a chapter on cricket?
It introduced school children to the history of a game, which they already played in their colony parks on Sundays, and that became an opportunity to discuss other subjects related to it. What most do not understand is that history is about everything, and the present is determined by the past. Many children will discuss recent matches, remember runs made in old ones and be excited even by old photographs of players.

But evolution of the sport in India, from something only the British played to one in which Indians are some of the best in the world, was also an occasion to study colonialism, for instance. The study of the history of clothing is also a study of social divisions, trade relations between countries and caste.

If we were to write a textbook today, we might have chosen to write about the internet – how it came up and what it has contributed.

Going by just the headline will always be misleading. They need to read the entire chapter to understand. The idea was that children should be engaged and also encouraged to explore on their own. That way they feel empowered.

How were these history textbooks different from what existed before?
All of us did agree on what the changes were to be. Our main focus was to change the way history was perceived by students, parents and even teachers in schools. It was always seen as a subject requiring a lot of rote learning and that incited little curiosity and no excitement. Children would not want to explore further. We tried to rework the curriculum in a way that would discourage learning by rote, and the textbooks were redesigned accordingly.

Apart from picking topics students could immediately relate to, we changed the way the material was presented as well. We did not go for the traditional pattern of questions. We tried to reframe them and place suggestions for activities alongside the text and not only at the end of it. Boxes introduce new aspects to the topic that the child can explore and initiate different discussions on. We also altered the traditional styles of printing with a typical font-size and the paper quality was changed too. Pictures were sourced from institutions all over the world.

Do you think topics like cricket are still considered unworthy of academic interest? What will happen if these sections are dropped?
The government is talking about reducing the burden on the child. What it needs to understand that it is not the number of pages that is a burden. If I read 100 pages on a topic and found I fully understood understood and enjoyed it, would that be too high a load for me? I would rather go for those 100 pages than five pages of something that makes no sense or that I cannot relate to. As Professor Yashpal had explained in Learning without Burden, it is the load of incomprehension which would bother school children much more. They get no joy from it.

But teachers must also accept the changes. Parents always insist children must be taught something useful and that cricket is not useful. But we have moved beyond that. History is not only about kings and queens. We know that what we read in the news today are all a part of history – economics, politics, literature, language, food, the media. And history is no longer only about the past.