May 31, 2020
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Oh, Would That Patel Could Bat!

Oh, Would That Patel Could Bat!
The Hindu
Oh, Would That Patel Could Bat!

Indian cricket at 17 was like a teenager who had ‘come out’, free from her governess, and could roam the world at last. By 1949, India in world cricket was no longer India vs England.

In its first 15 years as a Test-playing country (1932-47), India played just 10 Tests, all against England. Barring some unofficial tours, cricket largely comprised matches between Hindus, Muslims, Parsees and the Rest, which had done much to nurture the game here. Just before independence, these matches, seen as a manifestation of communalism in sport and condemned by Gandhi, were stopped. However, by 1949, India had taken steps to become like other Test-playing countries with regular official home and away tours. In 13 months between January 1948 and February 1949, India doubled the number of Tests it had played in the past sixteen years.

The country was still bloodied from Partition when India left for Australia in the winter of 1947. It marked a number of firsts: first Tests against a country other than England, the first tour of a country other than England and the first five-Test series. Nine months after the Indians returned there were more firsts, with the West Indians visiting. Though many Indians were taken to the Caribbean by the British as indentured labour, there had been little cricketing contact. Not only was this the first official tour by a team other than England, it meant a first home Test in 14 years, since February 13, 1934, when Douglas Jardine’s team won the Chepauk Test, having won the series 2-1.

India had changed much since; the fact that the first Test in November 1948 was at the Ferozshah Kotla was significant. Delhi had never staged a Test or even a representative match, and the logical place for the series to start would have been Bombay, the home of Indian cricket, and the venue for its first home Test in 1933. The Brabourne stadium was not only the best appointed ground in India, it also had hotel-like facilities where cricketers could stay during the match. It did host two Tests, but Jawaharlal Nehru insisted that as this was the first-ever Test played in independent India it should be in the capital. He may not have distinguished himself at cricket at Harrow or Cambridge, but he appreciated it and was keen to encourage Indian cricket.

Other politicians took up the cricket theme. The series was marked by India often collapsing in the first innings but batting strongly in the second to force a draw, which prompted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the deputy PM, to quip that India should play its second innings first. India eventually collapsed once too often to lose the five-Test series 1-0.

They had a great chance to square the series in the final Test in Bombay in February 1949, falling just six runs short of the 361 they were chasing. With one wicket in hand, India may not have made it but the West Indians got away with a shocking display of time-wasting. To make matters worse, the Indian umpire, A.R. Joshi, miscalculated. With seven balls left in the match, he called time. The West Indians left the field to catcalls and boos.

By this time, the West Indians were probably happy to see the last of India. Their memoirs reveal how much they hated the country. Jeffrey Stollmeyer alleges their Indian servants were either crooks or idiots. He also implies the Indian board cheated their board, promising them a share of the profits, but despite the vast crowds, sending a cheque of only £10. The West Indians found the hotels “cold, damp and dirty”, hated the long train travels and, by threatening to go home, forced the BCCI to fly them everywhere. However, the Indian cricketers stayed in cheaper hotels and travelled by train. When this led to demands of money by Lala Amarnath, the Indian captain, he was suspended by the board “for continuous misbehaviour and breach of discipline”.

Mihir Bose’s new book is The Game Changer: How the Premier League Came to Dominate the World

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