“While we are world cricket’s financial centre, unless Indian crowds embrace Test cricket Australia and England will continue to contest our superiority” – says cricket historian Boria Majumdar in this interview with Arunabha Sengupta. He also speaks about possible full house in the forthcoming Boxing Day Test match, match-fixing in 1947, and the possibility of passing away during an Indo-Pak Test match.
Cricket is intertwined with the society of all the nations that have come in contact with British influence of the earlier centuries.
In the present age, it is probably the only Indian phenomenon which connects the entire country with a common pulse that races along in resonance with the fortunes of the national team.
But, it is rarely that people link cricket seriously with social history – at least from the academic point of view.
However, in Boria Majumdar, we find someone who has been instrumental in sketching the much-needed connections between the game and social history. A Rhodes scholar, whose works on the role of cricket in the social context have been appreciated in the academia and the popular circles, he is the author of the much acclaimed Twenty-two yards to Freedom – a social history of Indian cricket, and many other books, including Lost Histories of Indian Cricket and Indian Cricket – An Illustrated History.
What made him become a cricket historian?
“As a trained, social historian it was a natural thing to do. A passionate cricket fan all my life, it was apparent to me that one can understand contemporary India best using cricket as a lens. But in India sports scholarship was still underdeveloped at the time I started my doctoral dissertation in 1999. Thankfully I got the Rhodes scholarship and things worked. The only perceptible symbol of Indian-ness is cricket — what else barring Bollywood to some extent unites our country, which, you might say is a conglomerate of many India’s combined? Only when India plays do we all feel part of the same community — the sense of imagined community becomes real. Yet, cricket was never treated as a subject of serious academic inquiry. It was a dissertation waiting to happen. I just happened to do it.”
His Twenty Two Yards to Freedom deals with the way cricket has played a part in the history of the nation. What would he say about the modern history of the game and the country of India? Is India's emergence as a cricketing superpower since the 90s a reflection of the open economy and her rise as a major player in the global scene?
“Of course it is. India is world cricket’s financial nerve centre, which is very clearly linked with the opening up of India’s economy in 1991, the opening up of Indian skies for foreign broadcasters in 1993 and all the events that followed. The attitude of the Indian players on the field of play today is also reflective of a new age India. While we are world cricket’s financial centre, where we still need to improve is in supporting Test match cricket. Unless Indian crowds embrace Test cricket Australia and England will continue to contest our superiority.”
What would he say are the major differences in the way cricket is followed in a place like England and in the subcontinent, specifically India?
“Most important is the point I mentioned - love for Test match cricket. In Australia and England Test cricket is still played to packed houses. Day 5 at Lord’s was packed when India played. Boxing Day at the MCG will see a near sell out crowd. In India we consume spectacles not sport, Test cricket is a lesser spectacle compared to T20, which is why we consume more of T20. I find this disappointing for a composite appreciation of the game is a must to be cricket’s real nerve centre.
Again, we consume spectacles. Test cricket isn’t a spectacle. The way news television presents cricket is sensationalist (I too am part of this industry and am guilty of this). The way cricket is covered is profoundly different from what the case was in the past. So there will inevitably be a paradox.
"I have no issues with the spread of T20 or IPL. I believe all forms of cricket can co-exist. But I am seriously opposed to stupid tournaments like the Champions League. Players don’t want to play it, the broadcaster is losing money, people don’t want to watch, yet the tournament continues unabated. This is stunning when are worried about cricketers facing a serious issue with workload.”
After the World Cup win in1983, cricket in India underwent a drastic change, and it emerged as quite a social phenomenon. It somehow became the unifying force throughout the nation. How does he think the 2011 triumph will affect the country in the long run?
“Look, the profound social change you are talking about cannot happen with the 2011 victory. Its 28 years apart from 1983 to 2011. The degree of social change will inevitably vary. Only the scale of impact can change. With the 2011 victory, cricket has consolidated its position as India’s singular national obsession for next couple of decades, a process aided by the cases of corruption that came to light with the Delhi Commonwealth Games, which was a lost opportunity to mainstream Olympic sport.”
Would you say the past decade or so has been the most glorious period of the history of Indian cricket or at least Indian batsmanship?
“Without doubt. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag playing together is Indian cricket’s greatest ever high. It has not happened before and will never happen again.”
A lot of turbulence is going on about match fixing. Any such stories of match-fixing and bookie involvement from the early days of cricket?
“There are several such stories. There was a major controversy when it was alleged that Lala Amarnath, captain of India was involved in a bribery case during the Test series against the West Indies. I have written about it extensively in my books and it had created a media frenzy then. The second has to be the unsolved toss mystery in Calcutta in 1978. Gundappa Vishwanath and Asif Iqbal went to toss the coin and that, many say, started match-fixing in contemporary cricket.”
(The Lala Amarnath issue Boria refers to here was from 1947-48, when the chief of BCCI, Anthony de Mello, had a battle of egos with the Indian skipper. One of the allegations of de Mello was that Amarnath had accepted Rs 5000 to include Probir Sen in the team as wicket-keeper, ahead of Dilawar Hussain, DD Hindlekar and JK Irani)
Cricket and social history was curiously linked in the recent film 'Fire in Babylon'. What are your views about the movie?
“I absolutely loved it. Bought the DVD and watched it several times. The way Frank Worrell became captain of West Indies, and the writings of CLR James clearly tells us how cricket and politics in the Caribbean are closely intertwined. Worrell’s ascendancy was a huge triumph for men of colour in the Caribbean, an achievement similar to Jackie Robinson breaking the colour line in the US in 1947.”
Finally is heard in the grapevine that one of his beliefs is that he will die watching a Tst match between India and Pakistan in the future. Why this belief? And going by how things stand between the two countries now, does he think he has a chance to live forever?
“Haha! You have taken it literally. It is a possibility, you know. But not in a one day or a T20 game, only a Test match. Take the Chennai match, for example, in 1999. Sachin scoring 136 with all that pain and India losing. What can be more heartbreaking!! I get a tad too involved perhaps — something I need to change, now that I have crossed 35.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)