The Has Beens: Chronicling India-Australia cricket ‘before history’ | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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The Has Beens: Chronicling India-Australia cricket ‘before history’

BySharda Ugra
Mar 21, 2023 08:31 PM IST

The 75 years of cricket between the countries was celebrated during the recent Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test series. Megan Ponsford’s book brings alive a tour that brought together cricketers from the two countries 13 years earlier

Being a persnickety cricket fan, let’s point out a statistical error in the buzzphrase that cascaded over the fourth Border Gavaskar Trophy Test – about India and Australia’s ‘75 Years of Friendship Through Cricket’. If we’re being historically accurate, cricketing engagement between India and Australia is not 75 years old. In November this year, it will be 88 years since the first team of Australian cricketers landed on shore for a three-month, pan India tour, covering 17 cities from Karachi to Calcutta and Amritsar to Madras.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese, Australian skipper Steven Smith and Indian skipper Rohit Sharma during a ceremony celebrating 75 years of friendship with Australia and India(ANI/ PIB) PREMIUM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese, Australian skipper Steven Smith and Indian skipper Rohit Sharma during a ceremony celebrating 75 years of friendship with Australia and India(ANI/ PIB)

Being a persnickety cricket fan, let’s point out a statistical error in the buzzphrase that cascaded over the fourth Border Gavaskar Trophy Test – about India and Australia’s ‘75 Years of Friendship Through Cricket’. If we’re being historically accurate, cricketing engagement between India and Australia is not 75 years old. In November this year, it will be 88 years since the first team of Australian cricketers landed on shore for a three-month, pan India tour, covering 17 cities from Karachi to Calcutta and Amritsar to Madras.

The 75-year much-circulated stat has its own veracity, because Australia were the first country to host an official tour by a team from independent India (November 1947 to Feb 1948). The 1935-36 tour, privately organised and funded so mostly ignored, has been brought to life and given its proper place in history through a newly-published book The Has Beens and Never Will Bes – a Boys Own adventure of the Australian cricket and the Raj. Its author Megan Ponsford carries a famous cricketing surname and while she is granddaughter of the great Bill, he’s not the boy whose adventures she tells us about.

That was Ponsford’s great uncle Tom Leather who was fast bowler on the 1935-36 tour to India, months after having got engaged to Bill Ponsford’s sister. His grandniece remembers Leather vividly, telling ‘silly jokes’ and sitting with the kids at Christmas gatherings. In 2005, Ponsford was handed over a box of Leather’s memorabilia by the Melbourne Cricket Club loaned by Leather for display at a forthcoming museum which never materialised. That box was to open up a new world for Ponsford, at the time a documentary photographer.

Had the box not turned up, Ponsford, now sports historian and speaking from Sydney, wonders, “what would I have been doing now?” The box contained a vast Leather archive from the tour – photographs carefully annotated, tour programmes, souvenirs, scorecards, a cricket ball – and it was to change Ponsford’s life. To discover more about this unique Indo-Australian alliance, she returned to university and in 2017 was awarded a PhD in history from her exhaustive research around this tour. The Has-Beens & Never-Will-Bes is that thesis turned into many things – cricket book, travel book, history book and a vast tour diary.

Mike Coward’s epic Cricket Beyond the Bazar, published in 1990, had introduced the Indian reader to Frank Tarrant, formidable cricketer and cross-cultural entrepreneur extraordinaire, but someone historically cold shouldered by the cricket establishment. It was Tarrant who was the chief organiser of the 1936 tour, which was financed by the Maharaja of Patiala, supported by other Indian princely kingdoms and welcomed by the newly nascent Indian cricket community.

The Australian cricket board rejected the formal offer to tour by Patiala and looked down on Tarrant’s ‘private tour’. Australia toured South Africa at the same time so the Tarrant tour was relegated to small type in history books, the team a mix of veteran and novice. The title of the book, in fact, comes from the Melbourne Age newspaper’s description of Tarrant’s team.

But behind the official team photo taken before departure, Leather had written these words: “The First Australian Cricket Tour to India”. It remains true. Even after the Indian team’s first tour to Australia in 1947, it took nine more years for any Australian team to tour India.

The Has Beens were in fact true sporting pioneers, from a country in a tussle with its own sense of an independent identity separate from the British homeland, yet considered a ‘dominion’ nation interacting with a ‘colony’ culturally far removed. The players wrote detailed letters to their families, others reported for newspapers back home, every player who travelled well aware of the unique opportunity given to them by cricket.

Like it was to do for decades, the responses of young Anglo cricketers visiting the exotic east and enjoying the hospitality was consistent. Yet, underneath the stories of playing, partying, drinking, falling sick, Hasbeens explores at the daring of the project itself. Of how the ‘clash of cultures’ being predicted turned into a constant negotiation of a common ground, leaping over differences of race and class.

In Karachi, the Aussies turned down club memberships with two institutions that barred local Indians and ensured that their opponents would not be treated differently by the British sahibs. Even though they shared more with them than the Indians. Even among them, the difference between economic classes was spelt out when the Australians travelled to smaller venues and had to be billeted with English hosts.

Hasbeens is a rich account not just of cricket in the mid-30s but of undivided India, urban and rural. The Aussies are given an opportunity to meet Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at his ashram outside Ahmedabad, but don’t take up on the offer. Back home, the Australian media approves, because “Ghandi (sic) is seldom in the news these days.” Jazz is played at a royal banquet in Jamnagar (yes, Ranji’s folk) and oysters, venison and asparagus served on gold plates and jewel-encrusted crockery.

Tarrant was to note with pride that while the Australian team ‘moved among treasures of fabulous value… never once did the idea of (stealing) enter the minds of any.” He should know. On the 1926-27 tour by an unofficial England team led by Arthur Gilligan’s, Tarrant himself negotiated with sticky-fingered English cricketers to return pilfered gold plates, knives and forks at Jamnagar railway station.

Reading the Hasbeens is like being on that tour, running into kings, commoners and cricketing gods, Australians and Indians alike, enchanted, annoyed, joyous, fractious, cricket always in everyone’s heart. There are ‘group shots’ of competing teams together, mingling, mixed squashed together in a single frame and you wonder why that’s not done anymore.

Finally, given that Indo-Australian exchange was at the core of the tour and the book, the publication of this non-academic version of Ponsford’s PhD thesis follows that very theme. For more than three years, commercial publishers kept sending rejection letters to Ponsford about her easy-read account of the tour. The research was first-rate, the writing was fun, but sorry, there was no money to be made here. The tour that had been ignored by history was once again being ignored by mass circulation. (Routledge’s academic The 1935 Australian Cricket Tour of India Breaking Down Social and Racial Barriers costs GBP130. It was Ponsford’s Indian editor, cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta, who took on the job of getting the Hasbeens to indie publishing house, CricketMASH, headquartered in Netherlands. The book was released in January, just before Australia landed in a celebration of (the inaccurately-calculated) 75 years of friendship through cricket.

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