The Keeper There Wasn’t
Fate and flaw conspired to keep egalitarian football at the margins in India. Cricket—race-erected, race-directed—flourished under post-colonial patronage.
Imagine that on January 26, 1950, India on becoming a republic leaves the Commonwealth. Six months later, the ICC meet and downgrade India from provisional member to non-member. However, even as they come to this decision, Indian footballers, playing with boots, are taking part in soccer’s first World Cup since the Second World War—the ICC meeting took place in the middle of the World Cup in Brazil. And, building on the impression they had created in the 1948 Olympics football tournament, they make a mark on the biggest world stage for team sports. Indian cricket, on the other hand, cut off from the world, withers. Ifs are fascinating because they allow speculation without being tested by reality. But we need to appreciate how fragile Indian cricket was in much of the 1950s and how much stronger Indian football was.
By 1950, India had toured England three times and completed a tour of Australia. But there had been no Indian cricket contact with New Zealand. There had been a home Test series against the West Indies but no visit to the Caribbean. Australia had not toured India. There was, of course, no question of contact with the White South Africans, who wanted nothing to do with non-White nations.
Also, unlike football in 1950, Indian cricket had achieved nothing on the world stage. It had yet to win a Test—it only did so two years later. Nor, through the 1950s, did India do much in cricket and for much of the decade Indian cricket struggled to attract worthwhile opposition and for some seasons they had to make do with playing unofficial Tests against so-called Commonwealth sides composed of players of many lands organised by the former Lancashire wicketkeeper George Duckworth. The decade ended with a mind-numbing 3-0 defeat at home to the West Indies, when India had four captains in five Tests, and then a 5-0 drubbing in England in 1959. India then were the dull dogs of cricket, having earned that nickname when they were thrashed 5-0 in 1959 in England. So dismal was India on that tour that during one Test Colin Cowdrey, captaining England, announced in advance he would not enforce the follow-on to ensure that there was play on the Saturday. In the winter of 1961, England went on a tour of India with a B team missing several leading players. An Indian tour was a hardship tour for English cricketers. There was no money to be made, India was very far from the powerhouse it has since become, and often struggled to finance tours. India could have been easily discarded from world cricket.
In soccer, on the other hand, India won the Asian Games gold in 1951. It won again in 1962, overcoming a very hostile atmosphere in Jakarta in the final and had come fourth in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Had soccer grabbed its chance, and Nehru followed populist sentiment and left the Commonwealth, who is to say that today football, not cricket, would be the main sport of India?
But soccer did not. There were, of course, immense problems for the way soccer was played in India. Unlike cricket, the game in India did not follow the game as it was played in the rest of the world. Indians not only played barefeet but, until 1960, India did not even play the full 90 minutes in their domestic matches. Indian matches lasted only 70 minutes, and this led to India, when playing abroad, often losing a match they had dominated in the last few minutes as their players ran out of puff. It was wretchedly led and, what is more, never really organised an All-Indian structure in the way cricket had. There was nothing like the princely support cricket enjoyed. Indian princes poured money into pre-independent cricket in India in an effort to curry favour with the British. They did not do so with football. The Raja of Santosh did support it and India’s soccer equivalent of the Ranji trophy is called the Santosh trophy, a knock-out competition in the style of the World Cup between the various Indian states. The Ranji trophy was also donated by a prince, Patiala, but there the similarities ended. Indian cricket developed a nationwide structure, with states being the equivalent of English counties, playing each other annually for a championship. After independence, other tournaments were added and the Ranji trophy has been reinvented often, but the basic structure has not changed.
In contrast, football in India remained parochial. There was no national league until the 1996-97 season, a century after soccer had first started in the country, and 50 years after Independence. Unlike the Ranji trophy, state teams mean nothing. Power rests either with club teams, as in Calcutta, or teams formed by corporate organisations, as in Mumbai.
Jawaharlal Nehru often took part in the annual parliamentarians’ match, as here
English football had emerged from English cricket. The formation of the Football Association was heavily influenced by cricketers, the Football League took the country championship as its template and the origins of many English clubs originate with cricket, such as Tottenham. The Hotspur Cricket Club, seeking a winter game to keep its cricket season alive, formed Tottenham Hotspur. And while the days of the double international has gone from English sport, English players still have links with cricket. The Neville brothers of Manchester United were very good cricketers and could have played professional cricket had they not been lured by the greater riches of football. The early history of Indian cricket also had clubs which played both cricket and football and I can remember a time when a double international was not impossible in India. The best example of this was Chuni Goswami, probably India’s greatest footballer. He led India to Asian Gold in 1962 and while he did not play Test cricket, he came close—captaining Bengal and scoring Ranji hundreds.
But such links were soon lost. Perhaps football’s greatest failing was that it was never taken up by well-off Indians, except in Bengal. While I played both cricket and football in my Jesuit school in Mumbai, cricket was a game all my schoolmates followed. I cannot think of anybody who was not interested. But football was, to use that Mumbai phrase, a ‘maca pau’ game, the slang we used for Goan Catholics living in Mumbai. They formed a significant portion of our school team, and most football teams of Mumbai. A Mumbai cricket eleven always shows a great many players whose names end in ‘kar’, like Gavaskar and Tendulkar, denoting Maharashtrians. In contrast, football teams of Mumbai have names like D’Souza, Pinto, Castro, Fernandez and D’Mello, indicating the Goan-Portuguese heritage of the players.
My own Bengali origins meant I was made aware of soccer in a way my Mumbai schoolmates were not. Both my parents had been introduced to soccer in their youth. My father, an immigrant to Mumbai from Barisal in what was then East Bengal, supported East Bengal, which represented the eastern part of the then united Bengal. He passed this love on to me; my mother, who grew up in Calcutta, supported Mohun Bagan, representing the western part of united Bengal. These two teams would play in the Rovers Cup in Mumbai and once when the two teams met in the semi-finals on a brilliant winter Sunday afternoon, our whole family went.
East Bengal won through an own goal from Mohun Bagan’s Indian defender, Jarnail Singh, the ball deflecting into the net off the knot of hair all Sikh men have on their head. I was overjoyed, but my mother was mortified. This was the only time I can recall our whole family going to a sports match—I went to cricket only with my father.
It also helped that my father, a prominent businessman and a leader of the local Bengali community in Mumbai, was very friendly with Jagadish Maitra, a Bengali journalist who ran the Western India Football Association. We were given privileged status for the matches there and the WIFA also played an important part in our social life. Every Christmas it had a children’s Christmas party with races and prizes, which my father encouraged me to join and which I often won.
But in independent India as a whole, football did not have such an upper-class social acceptance. Nehru certainly did not display the affection for football that he felt for cricket. It would be absurd to say cricket played a part in Nehru’s decision to keep India in the Commonwealth, but unlike Gandhi, who was indifferent to cricket (he only once commented on the game and that was to condemn matches between different religious communities in India, which he thought encouraged religious sectarianism), Nehru lent the game his enormous prestige. He had played cricket at Harrow and though something of a misfit there (Nehru was at Harrow at the beginning of the 20th century) his love for Harrow deepened as the years went by. Long after he had left Harrow, he became, says Sarvepalli Gopal, his official biographer, “very conscious of his Harrovian connections”. Imprisoned by the British during the freedom movement, “he stuck pictures of Harrow in his prison and drew up lists of poets and politicians who had been to Harrow. He even sensed a certain affinity with Byron on the grounds that they had both been to Harrow and Trinity, and he used to sing the school songs with the younger members of the family.... He was doubtless far happier as an old Harrovian than in his actual years at that school”.
In independent India, it was common to see photographs of Nehru, in all white and padded out properly, his head now quite bald but his back fairly straight, playing in the annual Indian Parliamentarians’ match. Nehru regularly attended Tests and other matches in Delhi, and it was his encouragement that made Delhi a Test match centre. He played a prominent part in making sure that when the West Indies made their first ever tour of India in 1948, they played a Test in Delhi, which, compared to Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, was not considered a big centre of cricket then. Delhi, of course, has risen, but that came many years later helped by people like Bishen Singh Bedi and Kapil Dev. Nehru never showed any such love for football. Nehru’s biographer provides no clue as to why Nehru should have taken to cricket after he became prime minister of independent India. But just as Nehru felt more Harrovian as he grew older, so, I think, he felt more attracted to things English, even as he sought to shape an English-free India. There was much talk about Nehru being the first English prime minister of India, and probably cricket benefited from that feeling. The departure of the British had removed the moral stumbling block about accepting cricket and this played its part with Nehru, as it did with other Indians.
Had India left the Commonwealth and India sent a team to the 1950 World Cup, Indian football could also have benefited from the very different organisation FIFA was compared to the ICC. The ICC, as we have seen, was a sub-committee of the MCC. FIFA, which was set up the French, overcoming opposition of the English FA, had a very different concept. From the start it saw itself as an international organisation representing all the nations of the world. Its reach, unlike the ICC, was not parochial, limited to the British Commonwealth. And also, unlike the ICC, it was not racist.
And here we need to consider the racial divide that ran through cricket until well into the 1970s and which MCC, which ran cricket then, not only accepted but promoted as necessary and good for the game. So, White South Africa played England, Australia, New Zealand, but did not play the West Indies or India. For England, Australia and New Zealand, the fact that despite being White they played all nations established their tolerant and generous attitude towards non-Whites. Indeed, in those years, the MCC used to boast of this racially divided cricket world by saying how it was necessary to build bridges to the Whites in South Africa. Before every South African tour English cricket officials and the captain of the day would declare how South Africans touring England would see how races lived together amicably in England, even attend cricket matches sitting next to each other. This, they argued, would make White South Africans realise the world would not collapse if they allowed that in their country. This was something not allowed in South Africa, where non-Whites were caged in separate sections. Shortly after his release from prison I had the privilege of having coffee with Nelson Mandela and he told me how he had watched a Test against Australia in Durban behind cages, cheering for Australia, but not too boisterously as, if he had done so, he would have been evicted, even arrested.
Change was only forced on the ICC when in 1968 the South African prime minister John Vorster suddenly promoted himself to become an English cricket selector and banned Basil D’Oliveira who, unable to play for his native South Africa because of his colour, had qualified for England. But although that tour was cancelled, a year later Australia toured South Africa, and, in the summer of 1970, English cricket was ready and keen to welcome the White South Africans. It was only tremendous public pressure and government diktat that finally forced them to cancel the tour, leading to the cricket isolation of White South Africa. It was this racially divided cricket world that India had been welcomed to in 1950. Here, it is worth stressing that FIFA and world football did not have such a racial distinction and for all the many faults of FIFA, now so well documented, on race it always took a very principled line, banning White South Africa long before cricket did.
This is not to say that had India left the Commonwealth in 1950, making Indian cricket a world outcaste, and the Indian football team gone to Brazil to play in the World Cup the same year, that by itself would have made India a football nation like Saudi Arabia, which do not see playing in the World Cup an impossible dream. But it would have made a difference and it would have meant that India would not have felt a pariah as it will, undoubtedly, feel during the 2018 Wold Cup.