KUSHAGR DIXIT | 30th August 2020

The history of cricket in India is something as riveting as can be. It all started with British officers playing the game and teaching their Indian sepoys about the rules and regulations of the gentleman’s game. From the barracks of these military establishments, the game was gradually introduced to the erstwhile royals (who were always very eager to learn and perfect the ways of the British) and gradually from there, an everlasting bond of the Indian public with the game of cricket was established.

The Parsi Cricket Clubs in Bombay began in the 1840s, infact from the period of 1830s to 1847, the English soldiers would play their Indian counterparts (Sans the stakes, this was a scenario that replicated the film, ‘Lagaan’) and the scorecards for such matches would then be circulated throughout the provinces. The very first mention of the game in India can be found in the ‘Bengal Sporting Magazine’, printed by William Rushton.

The Maharajas, Nawabs and the Princes post the 1857 Revolt realized that they could no longer assert themselves through political means as the British had a stranglehold over the nation. So, they started looking out for other avenues where they could excel and compete with the British to showcase their own prowess.

It’s essential to look back and understand cricket’s roots in India, considering it has been a surrogate religion for ages and makes the nation the sport’s biggest powerhouse in the world. If it wasn’t for the kingly influences of the rulers back then, would we be at this point now?

Indian cricket will forever be indebted to K.S. Ranjitsinhji

The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, K.S. Ranjitsinhji is a name which is synonymous with Indian cricket. He is held in such high regard that the premier domestic cricket league in the country is named after his as the ‘Ranji Trophy’. A fact about him which perhaps doesn’t get spoken about enough is that he was the first non-white person who actually became known as a sporting icon which in those times was an incredible achievement. He was the first Indian to play Test Cricket and scored a century on debut for England versus the visiting Australians at Old Trafford, Manchester. His skills with the bat, especially his on-side play was revolutionary for the time, the ‘supple wrists’ of the Asian batsmen which are often spoken about now seem to have their origin with his style.

The Jam Sahib was truly an icon of the Indian game and his popularity helped in promoting the game amongst all other royal houses of the time which in turn helped spread cricket amongst the masses. He ended his career with 24,692 runs in First-class cricket at an astounding average of 56.37.

His nephew Duleepsinhji followed in his footsteps and played for Sussex as well as featuring in 12 tests for England, scoring at a fantastic average of 58.52. An incident which at times doesn’t paint him and Duleep in the best light was his statement in 1932 with regards to the latter’s selection for the newly formed Indian team wherein he stated that both him and Duleep were players for England and not India. This though inflammatory was also a way for him to ensure his state was in the good books of the British government in India.

Regardless of the refusal, both these players had a huge impact on the game and its growth in India as they captured the imagination of their Indian fans and helped them believe that they could beat the English at their own game.

A cricketing visionary.

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh: The man behind the sporting culture of a nation

In 1934, it was decided that India would establish its own domestic tournament for First-class cricket. The trophy for this competition was presented to the cricket board by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh and the tournament was christened as the Ranji Trophy. The royal from Patiala was a true patron of sport and was one of the pioneers in establishing a sporting culture all over the nation, so much so that the National Institute of Sports in Patiala is actually located on land allocated by his highness. His two great sporting love affairs were with cricket and polo with both his teams- Patiala XI (Cricket) and Patiala Tigers (Polo) being the best teams in the country at that time.

One could say that his love for sports was passed on to him by his father, Maharaja Rajinder Singh who was probably one of the first kings all over India to provide patronage to sports. After all, the Maharaja commissioned the construction of the highest cricket ground in the world at Chail.

In 1911, he took an all-Indian team on a First-class tour of England. While there had been tours to England by the Parsee teams of 1886 and 1888, the fact that a team which truly represented different parts of the country for the first time represented itself on the British shores was massive and captained by Bhupinder Singh himself in 1911. Players such as M.E. Pavri and Palwankar Baloo captured the public’s imagination through this tour.

Slowly but surely, the Maharaja established Patiala as the sporting hub of the country and players from various county teams as well as the national team used to regularly visit and even stay in the city for their practice and the famed hospitality. He even organized a tour by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) XI to India under the captaincy of Sir Arthur Gilligan and paid for the entire tour from his own pocket, such was his love for the game that he spent a considerable amount of time and money in trying to promote it in his motherland.

The Maharaja pictured alongside the Australian team touring India in the 1935-36 season

This tour was a gamechanger for Indian cricket as many provincial teams gave the MCC a run for their money and the Indian crowds had new heroes to cheer for in D.B. Deodhar and C.K. Nayudu who both performed superbly. The impact of their and the other teams’ displays was such that once the matches were over, Gilligan along with the Maharaja chaired a meeting and stated that India was ready to enter not only First-class cricket but also the international arena.

In 1928, at the Roshanara Club in Delhi, a cricket body was established which is universally recognized as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) with Bhupinder Singh as its first President. He organized the preparatory camp for the team that toured England in 1932 and in effect, he was Indian cricket’s first great sponsor, arranging for foreign coaches, taking care of the team’s expenses, organising training camps and even employing some of the national players. Lala Amarnath, Lall Singh, Syed Wazir Ali and Syed Nasir Ali were some of the players that were at first discovered and then brought into the fold by the Patiala monarch. His son Yadavindra Singh played a Test match for India in 1934 as well.

The gamechanging influences from the Royals of Holkar and Baroda

The Maharaja of Holkar, Yashwantrao Holkar created his own team to participate in the Ranji Trophy and appointed C.K. Nayudu as a commissioned officer in his army. He wasn’t a player himself but was an ardent follower of the game and encouraged his team to play attacking cricket with crowds flocking from different towns to see the Holkar team play. His commitment and dedication towards his team can be seen from the fact that in the 14 years that the team played Ranji cricket from 1941-54, they were champions 5 times and were runners-up on 4 occasions. This was a remarkable level of consistency and coupled with their swashbuckling approach to the game, it didn’t take much time for them to become fan favorites.

The Maharaja bore all the expenses of the team and further employed the likes of Mushtaq Ali and Madhavrao Jagdale in his army, helping them focus entirely on cricket. He left an indelible mark on Indian cricket and was a true patron of the game.

Sayajirao Gaekwad III and Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad were two rulers from Baroda who too were bitten by the cricket bug and went above and beyond in helping promote the game in Baroda.

A padded up Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad in the Ranji Trophy

One of the finest players to play from Baroda during that time was Dattajirao Gaekwad who went on to captain the Indian national team. Under the leadership and guidance of Maharaja Pratapsinghrao, Baroda became one of the best teams in the country and won the Ranji Trophy for the very first time in 1943, dominating the 40s with 3 more titles to their name.

Gaekwad was even the manager of the Indian team which toured England in 1959 and later served as the BCCI President from 1963-66. Prominent patrons such as the rulers of Patiala, Holkar and Baroda and many other princely states played a very vital role in Indian cricket at a time when it was just about trying to find its feet.

Their contributions did garner criticism for various reasons but one simply cannot overlook the role that they played in popularizing the sport and the spreading of cricket to all corners of the country. It is perhaps befitting that in a land of many rulers, the most popular sport of the country had a royal seal of approval.