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1721 – The earliest mention of cricket in India

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It is believed that the Parsee community’s were the first to accept cricket in India © Getty Images (Representational Photo)

The first mention of cricket in India dates back to 1721, in an obscure journal of a East India Company seaman. Arunabha Sengupta delves deep into the details of the account. 

Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, says Ashish Nandy in his Tao of Cricket. Some disagree with the idea, albeit after emitting the well-deserved chuckle. Cricket to them is a quintessentially English game which reached the Indian shores only to be taken apart and reassembled in various avatars which bore no more than a passing resemblance to the original noble sport.

However, when did cricket reach the shores of the country? It is largely believed that the game travelled to India with the mariners of the British East India Company and very, very slowly found acceptance among the Indians, starting with the Parsee community.

Noted cricket historians from FS Ashley-Cooper to HS Altham to PF Thomas did not dwell on the origins of cricket in India even though they documented the history of the game with meticulous precision. It was left to an obscure reference by JS Cotton in The Athenaeum of 1905 to cast some much needed light on the dim pages of early beginnings of the game in a country which would be its foster home.

In a curious, convoluted chain of historical references, Cotton’s source was from India itself, drawing on Narendra Nath Ganguly’s 1871 monograph on the Calcutta Cricket Club, which in turn referred to an ancient volume by Clement Downing published in London in 1737.

We owe the earliest mention of cricket in India to Downing, an Englishman of unknown origins, who, according to the fantastic cricket historian Rowland Bowen, was ‘that type of rolling stone who, once familiar with the Indian scene, could not keep away from it, either because it fascinated him, or because the mere fact of his sojourn in Indian waters gave him a knowledge, and an expertise, not available to others, and which, therefore, could command a price.’ Presumably, he started as a seaman and graduated into an officer of the East India Company.

It was shortly before his final voyage to India — Downing passed away during the journey — he wrote down his experiences in a rather disjointed book which bore the ridiculously long title A Compendious History of the Indian Wars with an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength and Forces of Angria the Pyrate. Also the Transactions of a Squadron of Men of War under Commodore Mathews sent to East-Indies to suppress the Pyrates. To which is annex’d, An Additional History of Wars between the Great Mogul , Angria, and his Allies, With an Account of the Life and Actions of John Plantain, a notorious Pyrate, at Madagascar, his Wars, with the Natives on that Island, where having continued eight Years, he join’d Agria, and was made his chief Admiral, by Clement Downing, Midshipman on board the Salisbury, afterwards Lieutenant of the Victory frigate, Fame Gally, and Revenge Grab, part of the Squadron employ’d by the East India Company to attack Angria; and sometimes Engineer in the service of the Great Mogul. The volume, published as mentioned in 1737, was priced at 2s. 6d.

In the original edition, pages 228 and 229 contained the following extract:

“When we lay in the same Place, and I was captain Herring’s Lieutenant, Captain Dogget in Hunter-Galley was with us; for we never had any single Vessel sent up from Bombay after this Accident, but always two together. If we did not happen to go just at the Height of the Spring-Tides, we could not get over the Bar, the Channel being so very difficult. Captain Dogget and Captain Herring went up our Galleywat, which was allow’d us a Tender. We lay here a fortnight before they return’d, and all the while kept a good look-out, and tho’ all the Country round was inhabited by the Culeys, we every day diverted ourselves with playing at Cricket, and other Exercises, which they would come and be Spectators of. But we never ventur’d to recreate ourselves in this method, without having Arms for ourselves, and guarded by some of our Soldiers, lest the Country should come down upon us. Several times, four or five of the Heads of the Town came down on Horseback, with great attendance: They had two Men generally running at their Horse’s Heads, with bamboo Lances of a great length, and one or two a little before them, with their Swords and Targets. When we found they never offer’d to disturb us, Lieutenant Stevens and Lieutenant Radbone sent to me, and ask’d if I would venture with them to take a Walk to a Town about two or three Miles off.”

This description tells us that the mariners did enjoy games of cricket and it often drew crowds of locals curious about the action. They came to watch in hordes, some eminent members of their community turning up with considerable fanfare on horseback.

The place where these games of cricket took place was Cambay, some 250 miles north of the current Mumbai, 30 miles west of Baroda. The ‘Culeys’ mentioned in the piece are the Kolis, the hill tribe of Gujarat, who had been the sworn enemies of the Moghuls at that time.

The Hunter, the ship mentioned in the piece, did sail to India in December 1721, which helps us date the games of cricket with a certain degree of accuracy. This was just the second known occurrence of cricket being played away from England after some English tradesmen enjoyed a game while holidaying at Aleppo in 1676.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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