A Corner of a Foreign FieldStuart Wark |
Author: Guha, Ramachandra
Rating: 4.5 stars
The sport of cricket is one that is followed fanatically by fans all around the world. However, a large percentage of cricket followers would admit that the most obsessive and fervent supporters are from India. It is therefore surprising that there have been few widely accepted books regarding the history of the game in that country. Much as CLR James and his book Beyond a Boundary have become synonymous with both West Indian cricket and its society, Ramachandra Guha’s 2002 work A Corner of a Foreign Field is rapidly becoming the seminal piece of literature regarding India’s social and cricketing history.
Similarly to James, Guha is a highly intelligent individual with a PhD in Sociology. He has also qualifications in Economics, and has worked as an academic in universities in India, Europe and North America. It is this background which assists him to carefully examine and thoroughly analyse the development of cricket within India. The first mention of a cricket match in India occurred in 1721 (more than 80 years before the first record of cricket in Australia), with a game being played by British sailors in Cambay. Guha re-examines the history and development of cricket over the centuries since then, and in the process exposes some myths and confusions that have grown into accepted ‘fact’ over the years. It has been generally acknowledged within the English texts that the famous cricketer, Lord Harris, was largely responsible for establishing the game in India whilst he was Governor of Bombay between 1890 and 1895. Guha dismisses this viewpoint as an exaggeration, and makes a compelling argument that not only was cricket well established prior to Harris’ arrival, his own pre-occupation with personally playing the game actually limited his contribution to the development of the game on a wider scale within India.
Guha does make some other very interesting but less well defined assertions, including a fairly significant one about the left arm spinner Palwankar Baloo. Guha proclaims Baloo as the first great Indian cricketer, but his evidence for this claim is not overly compelling. Whilst undoubtedly a wonderful player, there would appear to be equal claims of other players of his era for this title. Guha presents anecdotal evidence of Baloo’s skill, but there are no clear statistical data to back up his declaration. Baloo was a Hindu, and it would appear that some Parsis would have claim to be his considered his equal, but the lack of any serious records make all such claims difficult to either prove or disprove. Players such as M.E. Pavri, who wrote the instructional book Parsi Cricket in 1901 and who was the second player of Indian heritage (after the great Ranji) to play county cricket, N. C. Bapasola, and B.D. Gagrat played in a similar era to Baloo, and were also gifted players of whom little is now known.
It is sad that so little information seems to have been kept with respect to early cricket in India. Guha has done an amazing job, seemingly finding every reference and record that still remains. The book examines, both as a theme and in detail, the complex dynamics between cricket, caste and religion over the history of the game. This analysis is particularly interesting at the current time when there is so much discussion surrounding racism in the sport. The review of the Quadrangular and Pentangular tournaments held in Bombay from the start of the 20th century until the 1940s also makes for fascinating reading, as does Gandhi’s involvement in their cessation.
Personally, I have a great fascination with the history of the game in India. As such, I found this book to be an incredibly interesting and informative read. No book is perfect, and at times I did feel that Guha overstated some opinions by presenting them as fact. I also would have been happy if Guha had concentrated his book purely on the early years of game, as the last sections of the book felt less authentic. General knowledge of Indian cricket has increased dramatically in recent times, and this may have contributed to the slight dissatisfaction I felt towards the end. These criticisms are but a minor blemish, however, as Guha deserves great credit for managing to balance the historical, sociological and sporting elements as evenly as he has. A Corner of a Foreign Field should be read by all fans of the game, regardless of their country of origin. Whilst it deserves praise for its comprehensive review of Indian cricket history, it firstly deserves recognition because it is so well written.