a corner of a foreign field

Review From User :

This book changed my literary life- and its influence goes well beyond books and reading.

A Corner of a Foreign Field fed my growing interest in Indian cricket, introduced me to my favourite author, RK Narayan, sparked a curiosity about Indian literature, society and culture, and ultimately prompted a visit to India. A developing benefit from Guha's book is the friendships I make on Goodreads with people from India and Indiaphiles.

Ramachandra Guha is an educated and knowledgeable enthusiast who writes with objective passion about cricket in India.

The sub-title is instructive - 'The Indian History of a British Sport'. It is a particularly Indian story, because communal grouping, caste and economic disparity are central to the story. India has not so much adapted the sport to their domestic circumstances, but rather cricket has been taken up with some vigour; as a means of achieving social cachet, as a means of promoting the interests of particular groups; communal, ethnic or social. It was taken up by people from all walks. Perhaps it's a game which appeals to Indian sensibilities. It could be that it's just a good game. And anyone who has played backyard or street cricket understands it doesn't require much to get a game going. Parenthetically, one thing I'm curious about is how cricket has been taken up in former British colonies. It is strong throughout the subcontinent - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; Australia and New Zealand in the antipodes; and in Africa we have South Africa and Zimbabwe. But what about Canada Why did cricket fail to take hold there as strongly as it has in the other places (recent World Cup notwithstanding) Too cold maybe Ice hockey and lacrosse are better games Odd.

As Guha details the development of cricket in India, he explains that it is pretty much on communal lines, with identifiable groups distinguished by community and religious identification, rather than by place or territory: Europeans, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. As identifiable teams formed on communal bases, we get a feel for the way cricket structure developed: there were quadrangular and pentangular tournaments, fiercely contested, and matched became opportunities to advance the cause of the particular community, whether Sikhs, Parsis, Hindus or Moslems. And for that matter, the Europeans. While other centres are discussed, Guha focuses of Bombay, where the development of cricket was strongest.

Guha is particularly good at telling us tales of early Bombay heroes like batsman C K Nayudu and the low caste slow bowler (and left-hander to boot) Palwankar Baloo, who made an impact, but later than otherwise because of barriers which confronted Dalits. He struggled for selection in the Hindu team and was not given the leadership opportunities that perhaps he deserved.

Guha makes the point that after cricket was first established the British continued to control the expansion of cricket with their own interests paramount. Along the way he debunks a few myths; for example he suggests that Lord Harris's reputation for promoting the game in India has less to do altruism and much more to do with self-interest.

The development of cricket in India was held back at least at the international level because many of the elite sent their children to English schools and universities. Several Indians ended up playing for England; Duleepsinhji and Ranjitsinhji for example and indeed the Nawab of Pataudi (the one from the thirties). Of course his son the next Nawab captained India in the 1960s - and with the use on only one eye - an extraordinary story in itself). But he did study at Oxford and played for the university.

The establishment of the Ranji Trophy (named for Ranjitsinhji) is important because it represents the commencement of the current Indian domestic competition, and is, of course organised on a secular, city and regional basis. Guha also tells us something of the growing power of the Indian cricket administration, beginning to realise the weight they carry in the game at home and abroad. Although this is told in more details in Mihir Bose's book, A History of Indian Cricket.which is a good companion to this one.

***

I like Indian cricketers and my wife gave me this book for our anniversary in 2003. I was not a big reader at that point, but I had read, at her instigation, Pride and Prejudice , A Handful of Dust and Vikram Seth'sA Suitable Boy. Her inscription says: 'For my suitable boy', which is very sweet.

On the cover of my edition is a photo of a man in a dhoti behind some cricket stumps with some children. The caption reads: 'The novelist R K Narayan playing cricket with his nephews, Mysore, 1950.' This beautiful photograph evokes the pleasure of park cricket (or backyard cricket, or beach cricket) played with family and friends. RK Narayan looks like a nice man. I knew nothing about him so I looked him up and his books and I found out he was quite famous, although I have since discovered that few people I talk to in Australia have heard of him, something I remedy straight away. We bought Narayan's Swami and Friends, which is charming and poignant, and so began an eBay quest for more of his books. By the time I had read three or four he had become my favourite author. We then purchased all his works from all round the world and I have now read the lot.

In 2013 we went to India to meet up with my step daughter Zoe who was doing a social work placement in Chennai and Kochi. We all went on a journey to Mysore and visited RK Narayan's house, unoccupied, saved from destruction, but in caught in a bureaucratic struggle of culture and preservation.

RK Narayan has been influential in my life. Graham Greene's oft quoted words that without Narayan he would not know what it was like to be an Indian are particularly apt. The Indian love of cricket is no less important for anybody from a cricket playing country, such as Australia, to understanding Indian history, culture and society. When we were in India and said we were from Australia, often the response from the locals was to say: 'Ricky Ponting', 'Shane Warne!', 'Mister Gilly' (Adam Gilchrist), all Australian players, seemingly as well known on the sub-continent as they are in their native land.

Cricket gives us something in common which is profoundly important in understanding each other. This book explains how the game took such a hold. It is a fantastic read.


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