Ashutosh Gowariker's Laagan was released in 2001. Picture Courtesy: imgarcade.com
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan released in 2001. Picture Courtesy: imgarcade.com

Lagaan — the landmark movie starring Aamir Khan that came out on June 15, 2001, in which cricket plays such a pivotal role. It has gone down one of the most successful films in the history of Indian cinema.However, Arunabha Sengupta lists several cricket related factual errors that are littered throughout the otherwise excellent film.

Lagaan — Once Upon a Time in India. A landmark film, a box office money spinner and recipient of the most eloquent of critical acclaims. How did it fare? With plenty of success in both home and away conditions.

At the international box-office it grossed 2.5 million dollars, at home 380 million rupees. Besides, the shelves struggled to accommodate the awards. At home there were eight National Film Awards, eight Filmfare Awards, nine IIFA Awards, eight Zee Cine Awards and eight Screen Awards. Away it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards — the third Hindi movie to do so after Mother India and Salaam Bombay. Besides, there were awards and accolades in the film festivals held at distant cities from Portland to Leeds, from Bergen to Locarno.

It received rave reviews everywhere — from the masses and the cognoscenti. Rotten Tomatoes still rates it 95% on its tomato meter, on IMDb it registers at 8.3. Every serious paper went gaga over it while a critic of Roger Egbert’s status voiced, “Lagaan is an enormously entertaining movie, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” Finally, it was a delight for cricket lovers. Very few movies have had all the drama revolving around our favourite sport in this riveting way. They played in whites too… er, at least one of the teams did.

Yet, for all its excellent plot, direction, casting and script, this well-researched period drama ended up with several glaring glitches from the very same cricketing point of view. Taking little away from the excellent movie, if one focuses solely on the cricket, there are errors aplenty where the story stumbles on the intricacies and historical details of the game. In fact, even the climax is somewhat ruinedif one takes cricket as played in 1893 into the picture.

The cuts, the slips and the misses

Here we will not be talking of feasibility of the tale. Perhaps it was really possible for a bunch of villagers of Gujarat, who had never seen a cricket bat till a month ago, to defeat a group of serious English cricketers, or even chase down 323 in the late 19th century. After all Ravindra Jadeja also hails from the same state.

Similarly we won’t be discussing why a group of Englishmen would play cricket at the sweltering height of summer in Gujarat, even as the villagers waited eagerly for the rains to come. We won’t wonder about the power of the cross bat, which turned out to be incredibly more effective than the technically correct game of the cantonment batsmen. We won’t wonder why a group of experienced English bowlers would feed a line-up of cross batted batsmen with a gamut of short pitched balls. We won’t question why there were no snicks and edges from the predominantly cross batted efforts of the villagers — the only catch offered by the local men was a skier, none to the wicketkeeper or the close field.

Bhuvan (Amir Khan) bats in Lagaan. Picture Courtesy: desimartini.com
Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) bats in Lagaan. Picture Courtesy: desimartini.com

What we will be concentrating on are the factual mistakes.

1. Six-ball over: The first glaring error occurs with the six-ball over.  Presumably the English cricketers in India would follow the cricketing rules in the Old Country during that time. In England till 1888, the over consisted of four deliveries. From 1889 to 1899, the number of balls per over was increased to five. It was only in 1900 that six ball overs were introduced. Hence, in 1893, the men under Captain Andrew Russell would no doubt follow the five-ball system.

In Australia, six-ball overs were indeed in place from 1891-92, but one cannot expect the British soldiers to take cue from the Australian cricketers, ignoring the English laws of the game. In 1893, five-ball overs were the way to go even in South Africa.

2. One-innings match:There was very little chance for a three-day match organised in 1893 to be restricted to one innings a side. Most domestic matches in England were of three-day duration, and even two-day matches were played two innings a side. There were rare one-day one-innings or two-day one-innings games, but they were mainly festive inconsequential matches of no importance. Given the premise of the story, this match was of considerable importance.

The Presidency Matches (predecessor to the Bombay Pentangular tournament) were already being contested by then. That same year, in August 1893, the Europeans played the Parsees at the Gymkhana Ground in Bombay in a two-day match. The game was drawn with the scores reading 94 and 65 for seven declared for the Europeans and 68 and 44 for five for the Parsees. One innings a side matches were, as already mentioned, rare.. Also, scores like 322 were extremely rare, but that is still acceptable if we stretch our imaginations.

3. Over-arm bowling: All bowlers depicted in the movie — other than one or two of the villagers with indigenous deliveries — bowled with modern over-arm actions. This would have been quite rare for 1893.

Overarm bowling was still a modern concept, and teams generally consisted of a mix of over-arm and round-arm bowlers, with a few underarm lob exponents as well. During that very summer of 1893 Walter Humphreys of Sussex took 150 wickets at 17 each with his lobs. Another ‘lobster’ GH Simpson-Hayward took 23 wickets on the South African matting tracks — as late as in the 1909-10 Test series.

Once again, not quite an error, but one needs to make assumptions.

4. Front-foot no-ball: When the bowlers bowl during the match the umpires are shown diligently looking at the spot where the front foot lands. No-balls play an extremely important role in the movie. The first wicket claimed by the villagers is disallowed, and later, more significantly,the cantonment team is made to re-bowl the last ball.

However, the front-foot no-ball rule was not introduced until 1962, seven decades after the Lagaan match. Till then cricket followed the law for the no-ball that was laid down in 1774:“The bowler must deliver the Ball with one foot behind the Crease even with the wicket… If he delivers the Ball with his hinder foot over the Bowling crease the Umpire shall call no Ball.”

5. Leg-glance: The leg-glance is played at least twice in the movie. The first English wicket falls off a throw sent in from deep square leg to such a stroke. There is another, a more genuine leg-glance, played some two hours and forty minutes into the movie that goes to the deep fine-leg. As is well known, this stroke was an innovation introduced by the great KS Ranjitsinhji, and it took some time for the English batsmen to adapt to it. Ranji’s First-Class career started in the same summer, 1893, and it would have taken a miracle for it to become so popular in the distant shores with immediate effect. The stroke is anachronistic. But then, it can be argued that Ranji may have picked up the stroke at home, not very far away from Champaner…

6The wicketkeeper’s crouch: The wicketkeeper of the English team is shown crouching behind the stumps. That is a serious error. The first wicketkeeper to crouch on his haunches in the modern fashion was Australia’s Hanson Carter and his First-Class career did not start for another four years in 1897. Wicketkeepers started following Carter’s example from the first decade of the 20th century. Before that, from Jack Blackham to Edmund Tylecote every stumper bent from his waist.

Incidentally, Carter was also the first batsman to play the scoop over the wicketkeeper’s head. However, in the movie Guran predates him by a few years as he hits it directly behind the keeper from his peculiar stance. However, that can be excused as the un-coached villagers would definitely have tried to find out curious ways of scoring runs.

7. Wrong end: The first wicket of the village team falls when a drive by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) is deflected on to the stumps at the non-striker’s end by bowler Lieutenant Smith (Ben Nealon) to catch a distraught Deva (Pradeep Rawat) out of his ground. Arjan (Akhilendra Misra) walks out as the No. 3. And strangely, he walks directly to the striker’s end and faces Smith. This is not an error of historical inaccuracy, but a plain and simple blooper.

One may tarry here and marvel at two British lieutenants bearing the names Smith and Wesson. Must have been quite handy while gunning the enemy.

8. Hitting the ball twice: The inimitable Guran (Rajesh Vivek) starts his innings by popping the ball up with his bat, and then swinging it over the cow corner for six. And strangely, the English soldiers don’t appeal. They just object.

They should have known better. The laws drafted as early as 1744 stipulated that a batsman would be out if he hit the ball twice. In 1786, in the match between Hampshire and Kent at Hambledon, Tom Seuter — known as the first batsman to step out to bowlers — was dismissed this way.  The rule had been almost 150 years old during the time of the match, and a precedent had been set as many as 107 years ago. Yet, the English team did not appeal and Guran went on to play his short but merry innings.

9. Umpiring signals: There was nothing wrong with the way the decisions were signalled, but it was slightly odd to see the experienced umpires raising their fingers to indicate dismissals like bowled and caught in the slips. And it was not as if they were giving only the villagers out. In that case it would have made some sense because there might have been a lack of understanding of the rules and their interpretations. The signals were made when Wesson was bowled by Kachra and North caught in the slip off the next ball.

10. The runner: The substitute Tipu (Amin Gazi), a mere kid, came in to run for the injured Ismail (Raj Zutshi). One can perhaps grant this anomaly, attributing it to an agreement between the captains and umpires. One is willing to overlook the inadvisability of involving a kid at that crucial moment when grown men were available. However, how can one ignore the runner not donning the gear of the batsman he was running for?

11. The missing delivery: So the kid rushed out of the crease before the ball is bowled. How else was he going to match the strides of Bhuvan at the other end? He did it once or twice and Willis, superbly named for an English opening bowler, got wind of it. He ran him out at the non-striker’s end before bowling the ball. 54 years down the line this would come to be known as Mankaded.

However, the problem lies elsewhere. There were 28 required off 17 balls when Willis was running in. After the dismissal, it is announced that 28 runs are required off 16. The ball is counted. Another error that is not due to historical cricket laws. It is plain oversight.

12. Field-placing and strokes: The fields used in the match were way too modern, as were the strokes. The longstop was still used in First-Class cricket in 1893, a man patrolling the boundary behind the wicketkeeper, and it would be expected for a stumper of a cantonment team to employ one.

Besides, WG Grace had been the first batsman to master both forward and backward play — many batsmen were still either front-foot stroke-makers, or back-foot players. Many more runs were known to come through the fine slip region. The extravagant drives along with the sweeps and cuts and pulls would have been difficult to find together in the repertoire of any but the very best batsmen of the day. However, most English batsmen did play fluently both off the front and back foot. Incredibly, so did Bhuvan.

The fielding positions are rendered even more odd during the final delivery. The home team requires a four and Russell asks his players to go back on the boundary. Even so, when Yardley delivers the final ball, North stands steadfastly in the slip. One is taken back to the Awwal Number days, Aamir Khan’s debut cricket match on screen. There too he needed six off the final delivery, as can be reasonably expected of any Bollywood cricket movie. And there were Australian fieldsmen hovering around in the slips. Possibly it is a cinematographic thing, a slip perhaps looks good on screen. I would not know.

13.  Boundary line: The game was played with a boundary line around the ground. This was an alien concept in those days. The boundary was either the picket fence, or a physical entity such as a cycling or athletic track running around the ground. In the absence of such a perimeter, it was considered to start from where the crowd sat. During the early Test matches, often the boundaries got shorter as the crowd crept closer.

14.  Sixes: We now come to a crucial concept that mars the story and the ending. Sixes. They were hit in a flurry by players of both the teams. Of course, a six is what brings the audience to their feet and captures the imagination of one and all. For the cinematic value there is perhaps no more popular feature in the game. Except, maybe, a streaker — which would have been extremely difficult to incorporate in a tale set in 1893.

Till the end of the summer of 1893, 41 Test matches had been played. Exactly 50 sixes had been hit in those Tests. That makes it slightly more than one per Test. Ten of these were struck by George Bonnor, the great Australian hitter, who stood at six and a half feet. Several of the 50 sixes were all run.

There is a strong reason for the number of sixes being so limited. Before 1910, to hit a six, one had to clear not only the boundary line but also the ground. Many of the gigantic hits of men like Gilbert Jessop were jotted down as mere fours.

Almost all the sixes seen in Lagaan would have been just fours. Only the huge hits essayed by Bagha (Amin Hajee) perhaps qualified as sixes, and we never got to see where those strokes landed.

15.  The final ball: And yes, Bhuvan’s stroke off the final ball would not have been a six. Russell ran back and caught him, only to find that he had crossed the boundary line. Normally, unless Russell caught him standing within the crowd or after going past the elephant that stood beside the ground, the captain of the village team would have been out.

However, if we accept that the boundary line had been placed for some reason, the result of the catch would have been subject to the prearranged conditions of the match. Generally a four would have been awarded, or just a not out verdict without any run for the effort. But, pre-match arrangements would hardly ever agree on a six for a catch made outside the boundary.

In the final match of the 1903-04 MCC tour of Australia, the visitors faced South Australia at Adelaide. Algy Gehrs made a swashbuckling 63 before being bowled by George Hirst. During his innings he hit Len Braund over square leg on three occasions in a single over, and off one of these strokes he was caught by Wilfred Rhodes. However, since Rhodes took the catch outside the ground, standing on the cycling track, and Gehrs was declared not out due to the pre-arranged conditions of the match. His final score of 63 contained 7 boundaries and no six.

Bhuvan’s final stroke would have still won the match for the villagers if pre-match specifications agreed on four runs being awarded, but it would definitely not have ended with the flourish of the umpire raising his arms.

Brief scores:

Champaner Cantonment 322 (Captain Russell 100+, Brooks 54, Wesson 51+; Kachra 4 wickets) lost to Villagers 325 for 9 (Deva 49, Bhuvan 144*, Ismail 52) by 1 wicket.

The scores and some other particulars were taken from Abhishek Mukherjee’s scrupulously detailed Lagaan match blog post.

(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)