When India take on Pakistan in a much-anticipated qualifying match in Manchester in the cricket World Cup 2019 tournament on Sunday, it will be “war minus the shooting”. Already, the political tensions between the subcontinental neighbours have been reflected in a debate about an advertisement aired by the official broadcaster: Pakistan’s top cricket official this week criticised a Star Sports spot promoting the match for being unnecessarily jingoistic.

For Indian fans, that wasn’t the only instance of nationalist sentiment beyond the boundary invading the pitch. Indian wicketkeeper MS Dhoni stirred controversy when he went into the opening game on June 6 wearing gloves bearing a winged-dagger Indian Army insignia. When the International Cricket Council told him he couldn’t do that in the next game, die-hards complained that the organisers had “disrespected the Indian Army”.

India captain Virat Kolhi, meanwhile, was presented with a glass case of mud from the grounds of his old school in Delhi – a gesture that seemed to embody the 19th-century notion of nationalism being anchored in “blood and soil”.

These antics would have left Team India 1911 perplexed. They were the first “All India” cricket team ever assembled. They were brought together to tour England precisely so that they could “make possible the idea of India on the cricket pitch”, said Prashant Kidambi, the author of a fascinating new book titled Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All India Team (Penguin/Viking).

But, as Kidambi, an associate professor of colonial urban history at the University of Leicester, told Scroll.in, “the idea of India that the team’s promoters hoped to project was very different from what today’s hyper-nationalist Indian cricket fan might easily recognise or be reconciled with”.

Ahead of Sunday’s India-Pakistan Word Cup game, he discussed his book, nationalism in Indian cricket, and looked at how the game has evolved over the century.

Who were the people who put together Team India 1911 and why did they do so?
Contrary to popular perception, the first “Indian” team was constituted by, and not against, the forces of empire. It was assembled by a diverse coalition of Indian businessmen, princely aristocrats, and publicists working in tandem with British governors, civil servants, journalists, soldiers, and professional coaches. It is an excellent example of what the scholar Arjun Appadurai called the “imperial class regime” of cricket in colonial India.

The project to construct an “Indian” cricket team had a long history. It took 12 years and three aborted attempts before the first composite “All India” team took to the field.

The first time the idea was floated was in 1898, following the stunning rise of Ranjitsinhji (“Ranji”), the Indian prince who bewitched Britain and the wider imperial world with his sublime batting. Indian cricket promoters sought to capitalise on Ranji’s celebrity in putting together an Indian cricket team. But Ranji, who used his cricketing prestige to become the ruler of Nawanagar, was wary of a project that might call into question his own status as an English cricket icon.

Four years later, a very different imperative was at work. Now, Europeans in colonial India, who sought to attract teams from Home, collaborated with powerful local elites to put together an Indian team that would showcase the country’s potential as a cricketing destination. But the venture failed because of fierce divisions between Hindus, Parsis and Muslims over the question of their representation in the proposed Indian team.

The project was revived again in September 1909. The preceding two years were marked by a wave of violence in which young Indians targeted British officials and their local collaborators. In Britain, there were growing calls to prevent Indians from travelling to the country. Dismayed by the negative publicity generated by these acts, Bombay’s leading business magnates and public men, along with prominent Indian princes, sought to send a national cricket team to Britain to reaffirm the country’s loyalty to the empire.

Captain HD Kanga leads the Indian cricket team out against the Sussex Country Cricket Club. Credit: Penguin Books India
Captain HD Kanga leads the Indian cricket team out against the Sussex Country Cricket Club. Credit: Penguin Books India

What idea of India did they hope they project?
The organisers of the 1911 tour wanted to use cricket to promote a positive image of India. They were keen to reassure imperial authorities that the country would remain a loyal part of the British Empire. That was the principal aim of the first “All-India” cricket tour of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The timing was not a coincidence: it was the year when George V was formally crowned King-Emperor in London; later that year he travelled to India for the Delhi Durbar. The Indian cricket promoters’ also took their cues from other colonies – notably, South Africa and West Indies – where cricket had become a key element of imperial soft power and cultural diplomacy.

What did the composition of the team reflect about India in the first decade of the 20th century? The captain was from a royal family and the main bowler was Dalit.
The composition of the first Indian cricket team tells one a great deal about the India of the early 20th century. Notably, there is the hold of an entrenched colonial sociology which constructed all aspects of social life on the basis of community. Cricket too reflected this: it was organised along sectarian lines: you had Parsi cricket, Hindu cricket, and Muslim cricket.

Equally, there is the unquestioning acceptance of feudal privilege and hierarchy. The captain of the Indian cricket team could only be a prince, irrespective of the fact that he was far less experienced than the players he led.

At the same time, we also see the rise of an increasingly voluble educated middle class, which shapes the public discourse about the sport, as it did much else besides. All but one of the 16 cricketers originally named in the first Indian cricket team had been to college. Significantly, too, we also see the emergence of moneyed elites that seek to direct the future of the game.

But perhaps the most remarkable stirrings of change were that the cricket field also made possible the rise of an accomplished family of Dalit sportsmen, who become the leading cricketers of their time. The stories of Palwankar Baloo and his sibilings (one of whom, Shivram, travelled to Britain on the 1911 tour and another, Vithal, who narrowly missed out) are truly astonishing. But it can only be understood in the context of the rise of a strident anti-caste social movement in Maharashtra and the role of Bombay as a cosmopolitan city.

As you show, business has always been linked with the sport. What role did the Tatas play in supporting that first team?
Undoubtedly, the decisive contribution that made possible the 1911 Indian cricket team was that of the Tata brothers, Dorab and Ratan. There were other notable contributors, no doubt, but it was these two brothers who made it happen. Both were keen sportsman, though Dorab was probably more adept at cricket. He was a key figure in Bombay sport in the early 20th century. He also had links with the cricketing establishment at Lord’s. Indeed, he once told a friend that he would much rather be the President of the Marylebone Cricket Club – the sport’s former governing body – than the Viceroy of India. Importantly, Francis Lacey, the MCC secretary, was a college friend from his days at Cambridge. So, the organisational details of the 1911 Indian cricket tour were sorted out pretty quickly.

The Tatas’ role in Indian cricket at this time was not unlike that of Abraham (“Abe”) Bailey, the Transvaal business magnate who put South Africa on the international cricketing map.

You write about a large group of Bhatia merchants from Mumbai who chartered their own ship to follow the team to England, taking along their own Brahmin cooks so that they could protect their caste purity. This sounds like an early version of the Bharat Army. How has the nature of Indian fandom changed since then?
I think the Bharat Army represents the new hyper-nationalism around cricket. Cricket has been constituted by politics from the very outset of its career in India. There has never been a time when the sport was free of politics. But what we are seeing is an intensification of sport as a focus of nationalist sentiment. It should not be imagined either that this is necessarily organic. Sport, has, after all, enabled the imagining of multiple forms of collective identities from the local to the transnational. I think the role of the commercial interests in fashioning “Team India” as a focal point of nationalist feelings needs to be recognised.

Equally, I think the role of the Indian diaspora, for whom cricket represents one of the ways in which they relate to their country of origin, has also played a part. And finally, I think the changes in the Indian economy, the rise of a vast middle class with the resources to travel overseas with the Indian cricket team has also played a part in the changing nature of fandom. Perhaps that last feature is the one respect in which the Bharat Army and the 1911 Bhatia venture to Britain have something in common.

A cartoon from 'Hindi Punch' depicts the team's farewell at the Orient Club in Mumbai in May, 1911. Credit: Penguin Books India.
A cartoon from 'Hindi Punch' depicts the team's farewell at the Orient Club in Mumbai in May, 1911. Credit: Penguin Books India.

This World Cup has seen nationalism playing out in curious ways, from the controversy around Dhoni’s gloves to soil from Virat Kohli’s school being taken to the UK. What do you make of these extravagant displays of national pride?
The last two decades have seen an intensification of cricketing jingoism. I think the early 1990s marked a turning point in this regard. But there has been of late one significant change: the players themselves have begun to take to the role of soldiers. This must surely have a detrimental impact on sporting relations. Earlier, players from both teams tended to fraternise with each other and insulate themselves from the nationalist hysteria around them. That will increasingly become difficult if this trend continues.

What impression has that 1911 tour left on contemporary Indian cricket?
The 1911 cricket tour anticipated the future of Indian cricket in interesting ways. In mirroring the country’s social diversity, the 1911 Indian cricket team inaugurated a new register in which the nation came to be imagined. “Team India” is now a potent national symbol with an unparalleled popular appeal. Equally, the middle classes still form the core constituency of Indian cricket, providing the bulk of the game’s players and followers in the subcontinent.

Moreover, the nexus of money and power that made possible the first Indian team continues to flourish, forming the basis of the country’s global dominance as a cricketing superpower. Now, as then, the elites who control the sport seek to exploit the game’s popularity for their own ends. Although the days of lordly cricketing aristocrats are long past, the “superstar culture” that began with Ranjitsinhji remains a pervasive feature of Indian cricket to this day.

Where once the dominant rivalry in cricket was between England and Australia, it’s now between India and Pakistan. What makes this different from other sporting contests?
I think the fact that, at its heart, this cricketing rivalry is a result of Partition of India infuses encounters between these two countries with political meanings that go way beyond the sporting field. Moreover, cricket is the one sport in which both countries have excelled on the world stage. Also, cricket is the one sport in which the collective self-representations and dominant public narratives of both countries are constantly in play when they meet on the field of play. That, too, lends an extraordinary charge to Indo-Pak cricket matches.

The cricketing rivalry between these two countries is compelling, as only encounters between “intimate enemies” can be. It should not be forgotten either that sport has served, on many previous occasions, to bring together the two nations, open up a dialogue, and create a sense of fraternity. The recent deterioration in political relations and the current diplomatic impasse should not skew judgements about what is a rather tangled, complicated relationship. If the players can stay insulated and the fans stop regarding Indo-Pak cricket matches as “war minus the shooting” there may be yet be some hope for the future of this cricketing rivalry.

Historian Prashant Kidambi teaches at the University of Leicester.
Historian Prashant Kidambi teaches at the University of Leicester.