Cricket, a Gentleman’s Game


Mahatma Gandhi once showed his preference for Cricket, when asked for an autograph, by putting his name down as the 17th member of D.R. Jardine’s team. He revealed that he was capable of playing the game and challenged the late Nawab of Pataudi. The then Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, Vice President, Dr. Radhakrishnan, founder of Pakistan, Mr. Mahomed Ali Jinnah, other than the British Royalty, hosts of English writers, like Lord Byron, HG Wells, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, W.G. Grace, Jerome K. Jerome and J.M. Barrie were associated with the gentleman’s game. So was the classic humorist P.G. Wodehouse and the Indian writer, RK Narayan, says Neelum, delving into a 1955 issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India, exclusively in Different Truths.   

Now this is a piece handpicked from a vintage number of The Illustrated Weekly of India, of July 24, 1955, when C.R. Mandy was the Editor. Penned by A. Rudra, it brings a refreshing whiff of a time when gentlemen knew what was cricket and what wasn’t, and probably more people played by the rules than overruled them. I don’t quite know if that’s a romantic illusion, but if it was, it seemed pretty convincing. I don’t know if the rules were what I imagined them to be but even if they weren’t, it was a consistent and restorative illusion. Particularly in a retrospective aspect. For we inhabit a time when there are few gentlemen, only salesmen. The gentleman is that rare specie threatened with extinction, as I wrote somewhere, and should be kept safe in environmentally protected spaces as a curiosity and an interesting exhibit to future generations!

We are here referring to what used to be called a gentleman’s game. But games are notorious for changing, Great Games as well as little ones.  The first thing that struck me when I read this cutely period piece about cricket was its elevated pitch (pun unintended). A High Moral Tone which amuses rather than annoys, although I much prefer our current range of wholesome irreverences; seven years after Independence a concentrated, deferential Eurocentricism quite at variance to our contemporary global confidence; class-intensiveness, although I would hesitate to call it authentic; indulgence in sweet, has-been racial stereotypes as tired and outworn as an outdated hemline; an altogether cloying, genuflecting reverence for the British Royal Family; restful environment-intactness, for whoever can imagine the river Godavari in flood – I was shocked to behold the ragged  fretwork of puddles, snared by underlying rock, that the bridge- sign close to Nasik station told me was the Godavari, that once sharp-blue vein of water carved on our relief maps of India when we were in school. Still, for all this attitudinal gulf between then and now  there is in this engaging piece a certain enviable stability of value-assumptions, simplistic certitudes, even when starkly questionable to our carping, problematizing, contemporary minds. It does make a valuable and perennially valid point about a game and a country:  that the sum of the character-traits of the constituent members of a team makes up the qualitative tone of the game and, I would argue from this, the quality of a country’s politics and civil society. Read on:

“Given the chance of changing shoes with Ranjitsinhji or Joe Chamberlain, with F.S.Jackson or George Meredith, with Tom Richardson or the Prince of Wales, I would not have hesitated one moment. Flannels were the only wear.” Thus did Herbert Farjeon reveal his undisguised partiality for cricket? The choice is hardly surprising for the game has a philosophy of its own. “It is dependent more than any other on the character and idealism of the players. In the long run, it is the sum total of the character of the men who take part in it.” Hence cricket, though it has had its own celebrities, has become irresistible to celebrities in all walks of life.
Did not Mahatma Gandhi once show his preference for the game, when asked for an autograph, by putting his name down as the 17th member of D.R. Jardine’s team? This essentially English game fascinated the Mahatma because psychologically and spiritually it best suited the Indian temperament. Indians who long ago learnt to respect human values and to place ideals above self, have a ready enthusiasm for cricket.

But Gandhiji did not stop at merely adding his name to Jardine’s team. He went on to reveal that he was capable of playing the game and challenged no less a person than the late Nawab of Pataudi. The Nawab, in great humility, submitted that whereas the Mahatma could not defeat him in cricket, he was sure that Gandhiji could not be outwitted in politics. Then the cricketer in the Mahatma was truly revealed. He retorted: “Nawab Saheb, aapne mujhe abhi se bowled kar diya. (Nawab Saheb, you have bowled me already)”.

No better tribute to the immense appeal of the game could have been paid than when our Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, who has the knack of drawing immense crowds, decided to don flannels and lead the Prime Minister’s team against the Vice President’s XI in a charity match played, in 1953, to raise funds in the aid of the victims of the Godavari floods. That it was 40 years since he had last wielded the willow made little difference to Mr. Nehru. He had, on the whole, a good match. He even had success as a commentator when called upon to describe the fall of a wicket.

India’s Vice President, Dr. Radhakrishnan, is no stranger to the game either, though his cricket is confined to playing single-wicket with his grandchildren. But his interest in the game is abiding, and it was he who first noted the fact that “cricket has come to stay as India’s National Game.”

The founder of Pakistan, Mr. Mahomed Ali Jinnah, showed as much interest in cricket as in politics, so does its present Prime Minister, Mr. Mohammed Ali. Mr. Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia would rather forego sleep than miss the radio commentaries on the fortunes of his country against England in ‘The Ashes’. (By the way, I always wondered at this intriguing term ‘ashes’ and was charmed to learn the story behind it. When Australia beat England, in 1882, a cremation ritual for English cricket was held and a handful of ashes kept in a cup-sized urn to be conveyed to Australia in a spirit of national mourning!)

In England, the game has come to reflect the national temperament: patience, doggedness, and a disregard for initial reverses. From the Queen in Buckingham Palace to the farmers in their cottages, the game provides the same joy and thrill. Members of the British Royal Family are regular in visiting Lord’s as attending Westminster Abbey. Their interest in cricket dates back all the way to the time of Edward the First. In some of the wardrobe accounts of that king can be seen inscribed in Latin: “payments made on behalf of the King’s son, Prince Edward, for playing at craeg” – synonym for cricket.

King George V showed an abiding interest, and followed cricketing events with keenness, as the following letter written at his instance to Mr. (now Sir) Jack Hobbs on August 20, 1925, shows: “The King has heard with much pleasure and interest of your unique cricket achievement in scoring 127 centuries, thus exceeding the number made by the late Dr. W.G. Grace, and also attaining a further record of 14 centuries in the course of one season.

“His Majesty warmly congratulates you upon this remarkable success, whereby you have established a new and greater record in the history of our national game.”…

The Duke of Windsor, in his book A King’s Story wrote: “The British Royal family and Royalty are not the only enthusiasts. Was not Oliver Cromwell, an avowed enemy of the monarchical system, accused by Sir William Dugdale, A Royalist, of having, when a boy, showed himself (Cromwell) into a dissolute and dangerous course, and became famous for football, cricket, cudgelling and wrestling, thus earning for himself the name of Roysterer”.

Poets in no way lagged behind; they took a delight in singing its charms. A prince and romantic among them, Lord Byron, was perhaps as skilled in making runs as he was in commanding the muses. Did he not play for Harrow against the flower of cricketing Eton?  Though his school lost the battle for runs, thanks to Byron it won the war of words. Being a member of the losing team he was the recipient of a poetic taunt:

“Adventurous boys of Harrow School,

Of cricket you’ve no knowledge.

 You play not cricket, but the fool

With men of Eton College.”

To this Byron retorted:

“Ye Eton wits, to play the fool

Is not the boast of Harrow School.

 No wonder then at our defeat

Folly like yours could ne’er be beat.”

(Personally I have always loved Charles Dickens’s description, put in the inimitable voice of Sam Weller, of the match in the West Indies in which a succession of ‘natives’ fall dead before the stern batting of a wan and determined Englishman and are ‘cleared away’. The humour of it neutralises whatever postcolonial rancor I might otherwise feel. And there is that hilarious parody of Cricket in the Caucasus, in which a Communist version of cricket in Soviet Russia  is imagined, in which all runs are held in common, in which competition is eschewed as bourgeois heresy, in which the Commissar who dictates the rules of the game is bumped off as being counter-revolutionary!) But this Illustrated Weekly essay adds to my collection by producing gem after gem of info for the afficionado.

“To H.G. Wells, whose father was a professional cricket coach, the game was a remembrance of his early boyhood and his father’s efforts to support the family, and his harassed mother’s accusation that the shop was neglected for cricket. But H.G.W. admits that “it was through that excellent sport… that the little ménage contrived to hold out.” In fact, one of Wells’s earliest essays was on cricket, “The Veteran Cricketer”, an admirable picture of rural cricket.

The “first and best of all literary cricketers” was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the celebrated novelist. Minus the beard he was much the same figure of a man: solid, four-square and an all-rounder as was W.G. Grace. He played for the Artists who included Jerome K. Jerome and J.M. Barrie.

And that classic humorist P.G. Wodehouse once paid a handsome tribute by devoting a tale (Psmith and Mike) to it thereby giving emphatic proof of his inside knowledge of the game. In another short story, How’s That Umpire, he gives an uncommon definition of the game. He says, “Cricket is not a game. It is a shallow excuse for walking in your sleep.”And one of his characters observes: “If I see another cricket game 5000 years from now that will be soon enough!”

Nearer home, all readers of R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends have shared in the anxiety of Swami for upholding the honour of the Malgudi Cricket Club….

Strange that the penultimate line of this charming article holds a sentence about ‘honour’, a word I often quiz my head about, a word to do with that other idea with which I began this column, the gentleman and his code. Those living in 1955 seem clearer on this score!


©Neelum Saran Gour

Pix sourced by author and from Net.


Neelum S. Gour

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum Saran Gour is a well known IndianEnglish fiction writer and academic. She has been an active book reviewer, critic, translator, humour columnist, creative writing guide and jury member in the award of national literary prizes. She works as Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad.
Neelum S. Gour