Twenty-Two Yards To Freedom: A Social History Of Indian Cricket
By Boria Majumdar
Rs 595; Pages: 496
Even brave writers might tread cautiously around conflating the term ‘religion’ with anything else. But saying "cricket is religion" is unlikely to get you beaten up in India. Especially if you’re sitting in front of a TV set. Yet there is surprisingly little to read on the importance of this game to Indians and their sense of themselves, a game that seems to influence culture and society as much as it is part of them.
Social theorists like Arjun Appadurai (De-colonisation of Indian Cricket) and Ashis Nandy (The Tao of Cricket) have explored the idea, but much of this isn’t really accessible to the larger audience of readers outside the academic world. That’s why historian Boria Majumdar’s Twenty-two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket is so important.
The book chronicles the relationship between cricket, Indian society and the changes within; from colonial times when Indians would play cricket both for social acceptance and for the subversive opportunity to challenge the British at their own game to the years after 1993-95 (the period that established TV advertising-based commercialisation as the real power in cricket).
It’s a long and complex story, and for the most part, Majumdar tells it well. It is also the first serious work in English to right a long-standing imbalance and chronicle the importance of Bengal in Indian cricket’s early years.
From an Indian social historian’s point of view, cricket in Bengal mattered as much as its better-recorded counterpart in Bombay. Some of the best parts of Twenty-Two Yards describe cricket and social change in pre-independent India, especially the section on why the game was taken up as an assertion of manhood. It’s an idea that’s been described before, notably in Mrinalini Sinha’s Colonial Masculinity—The Manly Englishman and the Effeminate Bengali in the Late Nineteenth Century, but is especially persuasive in the context of this book.
Of course, this is an outcome of the access Majumdar had to Bengali cricket archives. One wonders how much more might have been revealed had he also known Tamil, since cricket’s evolution and popularity in South India arguably also make good telling.
Another area of considerable concern to social theorists gets the go-by entirely. Today urban Indian women are a key audience for cricket, one growing steadily. So in the context of a social history, especially one that refers to Sinha’s deconstruction of a potent power imbalance—how colonialism became an agency for seeing the babu as effeminate—it seems odd to ignore that other formidable locus of asymmetric power: gender.
In any case, bringing more women into cricket’s audiences is only a minor achievement of the greatest force in cricket today: TV and the associated commercialism of the game. Majumdar is absolutely on the ball when he explains just how intertwined commerce and cricket are—this theme underlies much of the last one-third of the book.
Yet, this last part may also be the most disappointing. The scandals, personality clashes and games of power and money that have riven Indian sport in recent years should make fascinating reading. It doesn’t, alas, because there is too little of Majumdar the social historian and his analysis of why power, commerce and society relate with cricket, and rather too much of Majumdar the tireless researcher. The facts he digs up are remarkable, as they are throughout, but he doesn’t do them the justice of his personal voice, something he does routinely in his occasional role as an intelligent and informed commentator on TV.
For instance, it might have been intriguing to view messes like match-fixing and fights over TV rights through, say, a post-Lacanian lens like that of theorist Slavoj Zizek: modern capitalism creates many seductions to keep the eye and mind off the Real; this contaminated Real must be purged periodically to rid itself of the hegemony of these seductions. So, presumably, dropping Yuvraj Singh becomes an outcome of his being more prominent as a petrol salesman than as a cricketer.
It’s only one of many ways of considering cricket and India, and it seems clear that we’re ready for a new socio-cultural analysis of why cricket matters so much to a society. It’s been 42 years since C.L.R. James wrote his germinal Beyond A Boundary, one of the best works on sport and its connections with dismantling established structures of class, race and colonialism.
Majumdar’s work makes a very good book; the number of cricket fans who’ll appreciate its wealth of information and fresh research will far outnumber the nitpicking academics who would question elements of its scope or structure. But Twenty-Two Yards isn’t quite the classic of cricket and society we’ve been waiting for.