A WhatsApp message received Thursday early morning was from a member of a cricket group I belong to. “India’s first Test match at home began this day at the Bombay Gymkhana 83 years ago,’’ it said. Thank god for diehards as I had got the dates mixed up.
Only a few days back I was at the Bombay Gym and not for the first time felt a sense of acute disappointment at the inadequate representation the first-ever home Test played here finds.
Lack of a sense of history is a national malaise, but a leading sports club could surely be more sensitive. There are a few photographs from the match on the walls of the bar (see pic), but not much else to mark a unique moment in Indian cricket history.
How wonderful it would be to see a bust of Lala Amarnath, who made India’s first Test century in that match, displayed prominently in the precincts of the club! It would give Bombay Gymkhana a firmer locus in Indian cricket and also enhance its legacy value.
Amarnath’s century included, the 1933 Test match was epochal. Played against the backdrop of the freedom struggle -- gathering momentum countrywide -- England’s tour almost did not happen. But when it was cleared, Bombay simply had to be the venue for the first Test of the series.
The city had become the hub of cricket over the previous few decades, thanks largely to Parsis who were close to the colonial rulers for reasons of business, work and social standing.The Parsis then popularised cricket through clubs and competitive matches.
By the end of the 19th century, a match between Europeans and Parsis in Bombay (alternating with Poona) became a hugely popular annual fixture. By 1907, the Hindus had been added to this tournament (Triangular) and in 1912 when the Muslims were allowed as a team too, the famed Quadrangular came into existence. The nursery of Indian cricket had been seeded.
The choice of Bombay Gymkhana as venue for the 1933 Test, however, was not bereft of irony as the club in those days -- like the Royal Yacht Club, Byculla Club and Breach Candy Bath Trust -- did not permit Indians!
(Incidentally, Willingdon Club opposite the racecourse was founded by Lord Willingdon, Governor of Bombay, in 1918 when a Maharajah friend of his wasn’t allowed in Bombay Gymkhana!)
For this Test, Bombay Gym had to make an exception. But local spectators – including the well-heeled -- had to sit in makeshift shamianas and stands. The construction of the CCI was thereafter fast-tracked to give Indian cricket its own home.
Details of the match makes for fascinating reading. England , led by Douglas Jardine who incidentally was born in Bombay, were convincing winners. But there were moments of sheer brilliance by the Indians that whetted the appetite of the entire country for cricket.
Skipper C K Nayudu, hewn out of granite, impressed with his gutsy batting and strong leadership. Mohamed Nisar’s pace had the English batsmen hopping, weaving and ducking for long spells. And then there was 22-year-old Amarnath blazing his way to India’s first-ever Test century.
When he reached his ton, Mihir Bose in his History of Indian Cricket recounts, Amarnath was “engulfed with spectators, garlanded and congratulated while the band played “God Save The King”!
At the end of the day’s play, women showered their jewellery on Amarnath while the aristocracy gifted large sums of money.
Such a heady spectacle has never been replicated in Indian cricket.
In the 1980s, I once walked with Lala from Wankhede Stadium to the Bombay Gym ground, asking him to reminisce about the innings. He said above all else he was intent on proving a point. “I wanted to show the world we could play cricket.’’
The scorebook shows Amarnath hit a dazzling 118 with 21 fours. Cricket as a religion had taken root in India.