By Pradeep Magazine

Though India gained Independence on August 15, 1947, to understand the history of Indian cricket and what it meant to a nation reborn, one must go back a couple of decades back. For that is where it all truly began

The opening pages of Indian cricket history are a colourful, vibrant mosaic that encompasses its strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. They tell an engrossing story of human quest for excellence in the midst of intrigue and chaos. A tale of individual triumphs in the backdrop of religious identities, palace intrigues, divided loyalties, colonial servitude represented by a cast of characters whose idiosyncrasies would be a delight of any fiction writer.

Though India gained Independence on August 15, 1947, to understand the history of Indian cricket and what it meant to a nation reborn, one must go a few decades back.

But where exactly does one begin to interact with a past mired in tales that would have ,in many other countries, by now acquired the status of folklore? The early twentieth century, when the Parsees adopted the game of their white colonial masters with passion and intensity and became the first race to challenge the Britishers at their own game? The growth and spread of Quadrangular and Pentangular played in Mumbai where the teams were formed by religion — Parsees, Hindus, Muslims — symbolic of a society divided on communal lines; all challenging the supremacy of the British, who played in this hugely popular league as Europeans?

Before we reach 1946, when India was at the cusp of Independence, and was selecting its team to tour England for a three-Test series without any British influence and control, a brief glimpse into how we reached there will be important and instructive. It will help us understand better why and how cricket, intrigue and corruption go hand-in-hand, and how difficult it must have been even back then to rise above personal agendas and political intrigues to forge a cricket team purely on merit and integrity.

It is in intensely contested matches, watched by thousands of people from the early 1900s to late into the 1940s before the Quadrangular and Pentangular was finally abolished, that cricket started seeping into the consciousness of the urban masses. Its popularity and the patronage provided to the players by the Maharajas finally led to India playing its first Test in 1932 at Lord’s, almost 15 years before it was to gain Independence and get partitioned into two nation states

The most popular and revered face of the Pentangular, CK Nayudu, was to become the first Indian Test captain, but not before palace intrigues and vicious politics played out in full public display. Col Nayudu, as he is popularly known, was a big hitter of the ball whose first scoring shot in the Pentangular was a six. He was flamboyant and a brisk scorer of runs who had caught the public imagination. It won’t be wrong to say that he was the first superstar of Indian cricket. Yet, when the Indian team to tour England in 1932 was selected, he was not the captain. Fighting for that honour were two patrons of Indian cricket, the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, and MaharajKumar of Vizianagram, better known as Vizzy. Their merit for the job was limited to their ability to open out their purse strings to fund the Indian team’s travel expenses.

Vizzy lost out in the race and the captain-select, Maharaja of Patiala, had to withdraw from the team because of health issues. The captaincy fell on Maharaja of Porbandar with Nayudu not even being his deputy. A commoner was not thought fit to lead a national side, no matter what his skills.

However, better sense seemed to prevail, and when the Test was played, both captain and vice captain withdrew, and Nayudu led an Indian side which is better remembered for the wonderful debut of two of its fast bowlers, Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh.

Though India lost the Test, they played well enough not to embarrass themselves. Indian cricket had arrived at the international stage.

Lala land

A portrait of Lala Amarnath, India’s first captain after Independence. Getty Images

Four years later, in 1936, they toured England again, but this time Vizzy and his intrigues prevailed. Despite a batting record that even a tailender won’t feel proud to own, Vizzy was the captain. In a team that had Nayudu, Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, and the maverick Lala Amarnath, Vizzy was the boss who felt so insecure and isolated that he always suspected his better-known stars in the team were conspiring against him. This finally led to a showdown between him and Amarnath. The ebullient Amarnath and his irrepressible ways are part of Indian cricket’s chequered history and introducing the man here — he became Independent India’s first Test captain — does no injustice to him and his legacy.

Amarnath was a prolific run-getter and wicket-taker in domestic cricket whose colourful tongue, wit and the ability to understand cricketing nuances second to none. As long as the end was achieved, he did not care what the means used were. Bristling with anger for having been denied his rightful batting order in a tour game and still waiting in the dressing room to know when will he be asked to go out to bat, he is supposed to have made his displeasure known. According to eyewitnesses his use of a few offensive Punjabi words may have been way above the required code of disciplined behaviour. Vizzy ordered his “ejection” from the team and immediate return to India.

Lala Amarnath, who had scored India’s first Test century ever, that too on his debut against England in 1933 at home, has a legion of followers who swear by his tactical understanding of the game and his assertive ways. His domination and control over Indian cricket, be it when he led India post-Iindependence or was the chairman of the selection committee, has few parallels. But before we talk a bit more about him, let us shift our gaze to 1946. It had been 10 years since India had toured England in 1936, with World War 2 disrupting the sporting calendar worldwide. India’s Independence had been announced and the cricket tour to its colonial masters had now acquired a different meaning.

Given the chicanery associated with selection matters and the appointment of the captain, the changed circumstances demanded sagacity from the administrators. In contention was Vijay Merchant, whose correct technique and appetite for big runs had already made him the face of Mumbai cricket. Lala Amarnath was waiting in the wings, and the prolific Vijay Hazare were part of the team. But India was looking for a more symbolic representation, someone who would be a perfect ambassador for an Independent India, even if it was a cricket tour.

Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, who scored a test hundred on debut for England in that infamous Bodyline series of 1932 in Australia, was eligible for selection but had played very little or no cricket to merit selection Partition -- the creation of a Muslim Pakistan and what it meant for India opting to be a secular nation -- needed perfect messaging. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to be sworn in as India’s first Prime Minister, liked the idea of a Muslim leading the team that would make the world realise that India won’t persecute its minorities. Iftikhar Ali, who had played much of his cricket in England and was a respected and much-admired man for his speaking out against Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline tactics, was made the captain. It upset many in the team, not the least being Merchant who believed he deserved it the most and felt cheated.

Two-and-a-half decades latter, Merchant, as the chairman of the selection committee, cast his decisive vote against the retention of Iftikhar’s son, Tiger Pataudi, as Indian captain on the 1971 tour of the West Indies. One of the headlines in the newspapers, “Merchant strikes back” told the full story of Tiger’s ouster in just one line.

Merchant may have got his revenge, if one believes in his holding a grudge against Tiger’s father, but even he would not have denied the larger-than-life role that Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi had played in shaping and developing Indian cricket from 1961 to 71 into a more professional, cohesive, and competitive unit. Indian cricket history in that decade is more like the roar of a tiger, who despite the loss of his right eye in a car accident before he made his Test debut, led India with aplomb and dignity.

Roar of the Tiger

Before Tiger Pataudi took over in rather tragic circumstances on the 1962 tour of the West Indies, where captain Nari Contractor was hit on the head by a Charlie Griffith bouncer and battled for survival, Indian cricket for a decade in the 1950s was playing musical chairs with its captains. Almost eight of them were tried during that period with Lala Amarnath getting the lion’s share of those matches. The man from Lahore was independent India’s first captain for the tour of Australia in 1948, even while his home city was being ravaged by violence, riots and killings. Luckily for him, he had already shifted base to Patiala though his own house, full of his trophies, was being pillaged in Lahore.

India did manage to win a few Tests at home, like the first-ever Test series in 1952 at home against England or beating a full-strength world beaters Australia in 1960, with off-spinner Jasu Patel the unexpected star of a memorable victory with figures of 9 for 69. But these wins were too few and far between with zero returns on foreign tours. There were individual performances to cherish, such Vijay Hazare’s centuries in both innings of a Test match, or Vinoo Mankad’s epic dual role in the 1952 Lord’s Test, where he scored 72 and 184 and took 5 for 196 in the first innings. But the team as a collective was rarely playing to win or at its full potential.

Tiger’s ascendency to the helm did not result in immediate change in fortunes. But he did instil in the team a sense of confidence, and a new belief that helped in erasing a feeling of inferiority complex, a legacy of the colonial Raj.

He, like his farther, had studied in England, played his cricket there, and interacted with his rivals on equal terms. It rubbed on his team mates. He also had the cricketing acumen to realise that India’s strength lay in developing a wider arsenal of spin bowlers, since he could not find anyone bowling fast among his countrymen. By the early 1960s, BS Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna had made their debut while S Venkataraghavan and Bishan Singh Bedi joined the ranks by mid-’60s.Tiger had now a gameplay where these spinners were groomed to play a more decisive role and as time passed the spinners started weaving their magic.

It took India 21 years after Independence and 34 years after they had gained Test status to register its first overseas win, in 1968 at Dunedin against New Zealand. Bedi and Prasanna were the stars of that tour, where India won another Test to also register its first overseas series win.

The gains made on that tour were somehow not capitalised upon by India, with Merchant as chairman of the selection committee and skipper Pataudi differing in their vision for the Indian team

Three years later, Pataudi was ousted as India’s skipper with Ajit Wadekar taking over the reign from the Nawab for the West Indies tour in 1971. A commoner had replaced the Nawab, and India were to register more historic firsts, in the West Indies and then in England that year. The spinning fingers of the magical quartet of Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra and Venkat were to bring more glory to the nation. India was entering a new era where Tiger’s protégées were to play a major role in this triumphant saga, in which Sunil Gavaskar was to emerge as the finest batting warrior the world has seen.

(Pradeep Magazine is a cricket writer, columnist and former sports editor of The Pioneer and Hindustan Times. He has also written several books)

1947 - 1970