The Marxist historian C.L.R. James once wrote: “A really great batsman is to me as strange a human being as a man seven feet tall or a man I once heard of who could not read but spoke six languages.” He was referring specifically to the West Indian genius George Headley, but the more general point is that great sportsmen can appear to come from another planet while at the same time telling us something important about our own ordinary lives. For example, in some of the most brilliant pages of writing in Beyond A Boundary, widely regarded as the best book ever to be written on cricket, James told us how W.G. Grace “brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age”.
In his new book, Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story, Rajdeep Sardesai has sought to examine the same profound links between the playing field and the wider world beyond the boundary that James wrote about in his classic. He has chosen 11 Indian cricketers who he believes are truly representative of the era of democratic republicanism: Dilip Sardesai, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Bishan Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
Sardesai writes evocatively in his introduction about how cricket is “…one of the few largely meritocratic activities in the country, a highly competitive game that mirrors the idealism of our founding fathers and the spirit of our republican Constitution that sought equal opportunity for all”. I read these lines in the same week that a newspaper reported how a young boy from the Birla family chose to move to the town of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh so as to qualify for the state team because he could not find a place in the Mumbai cricket team. Aryaman Vikram Birla recently scored 153 for Madhya Pradesh against Odisha in a C.K. Nayudu Trophy match in Indore.
The individual pen portraits of the 11 cricketers are elegantly written by Sardesai. They move with the assured flow of a well-paced innings, with the deft touches his father was known for on the cricket pitch. His passion for the game is evident. What makes these chapters even more attractive is the fact that each is based on original reporting as well as personal anecdotes—so that even episodes that one knows about get a special meaning when retold by the protagonist himself (or people close to him). There are some subtle lessons as well, as when Sardesai writes about how west Delhi now has a cricket culture to rival what Shivaji Park in Mumbai once had. Look at the list of west Delhi cricketers in recent years: Virendra Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan, Aakash Chopra.
However, Sardesai stumbles when it comes to making the broader connections between Indian cricket and Indian constitutional democracy. He loses his way in the mists of sociological speculation. The claim that Indian cricket has become more representative is a bit of an untested urban legend. It is worth remembering that many of our first generation of Test cricketers, such as Janardan Navle, Naoomal Jaoomal and D.D. Hindlekar, came from lower middle-class families. It was not all princes and Oxbridge blues in the years before independence, though it will take careful data analysis to come to more decisive conclusions.
Similarly, the likes of Lala Amarnath and Vinoo Mankad came from small towns. The current rise of Gujarati cricketers echoes the time when Nawanagar and Vadodara were important centres of cricketing talent, though cricketers then were nurtured by royal families rather than commercial networks. The remarkable story of the Palwankar brothers, brilliantly retold by Ramachandra Guha in A Corner Of A Foreign Field: The Indian History Of A British Sport, comes from an even earlier time, when India was far away from independence. It is interesting that Sardesai’s list itself is dominated by the urban middle class—and the upper castes. There are few truly subaltern stories.
Or take a look across the border, at Pakistan, which is not a secular constitutional democracy by any stretch of the imagination. Its cricket team is no longer dominated by Oxbridge folk such as Majid Khan or Javed Burki or Imran Khan. Pakistan cricket now has the imprint of the likes of Javed Miandad or Inzamam-ul-Haq or Misbah-ul-Haq. Would it be correct to say that this shift in Pakistani cricket is the result of the democratization of its public life? I doubt it. A parallel hypothesis—and like all hypotheses, one that needs to be tested—is that the commercialization of modern cricket has provided income opportunities that make the risk of a cricketing career worthwhile, just as African Americans use professional basketball as a means to escape the degradations of the ghetto. In other words, commerce may be a more potent explanation than political democracy for the spread of cricket in India as a meritocratic activity.
Two final points. First, the book has a few editing errors, but I was taken aback to read that Dilip Sardesai made his Test debut before his Ranji Trophy debut. Actually, the senior Sardesai was in the Mumbai team led by Polly Umrigar that won the Ranji Trophy final against Rajasthan in March 1961. He was at the crease when Manohar Hardikar hit the winning runs. Sardesai made his Test debut that December against the English team, playing for India after he played for Mumbai. Second, a book on the inclusive message of Indian cricket could perhaps have been made even more interesting with the inclusion of a female cricketer, say, Shanta Rangaswamy or Diana Edulji or Anjum Chopra or Mithali Raj.