Remembering Mahatma Gandhi's tryst with cricket

KS Ranjitsinghji
The legendary KS Ranjitsinghji was a former classmate of Gandhi

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi, it is highly imperative to connect two of the most enduring names associated with India – Mahatma Gandhi and Cricket. Affectionately called the “Rashtrapitha” which translates to Father of the Nation, Gandhiji’s association with India’s freedom struggle is well documented. But, his fervor for cricket is a rather obscure attribute of the great man.

In a 2001 column for The Hindu, noted historian and cricket aficionado Ramachandra Guha eloquently described Gandhi’s relationship with the sport. In a conversation with Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fischer, his sister revealed about her sibling’s childhood.

"When Mahatmaji was young he used to play with rubber balloons, tennis, cricket and such other games. He used to have such great interest for those games that he would not remember even his meal. He would not stay at home in the evenings as he would get engrossed in playing," she had said.

Gandhi also went to the same school as the legendary KS Ranjitsinghji, fondly called “Ranji”. The premier domestic cricket tournament in India, Ranji Trophy, was named after the iconic Indian prince who represented England with distinction. Even though their paths never crossed thereafter, the enduring thought of Gandhi and Ranji sitting together in a classroom as young boys, has remained a part of folklore.

Another classmate had recollected Gandhi as a "dashing cricketer" whose childhood was filled with the Gentleman’s Game. Even though the theory is fascinating, Gandhi did not allude to any cricket memory in his autobiography which focuses substantially on his schooldays. Apart from a brief opinion on the existence of separate cricket teams for Hindus and Muslims in Indian domestic cricket, he had never written nor talked about his affinity for the sport.

But, there was one incident which gave a glimpse into his mind, when the legendary Indian opener Vijay Merchant’s sister encountered the celebrated wit of Gandhi. When she approached him for an autograph, he scrutinized every page of her book before signing one containing the names of the 1933-34 MCC tourists.

Led by Douglas Jardine, a man remembered for instigating the Bodyline fiasco, the visiting entourage also included the revered Yorkshire spinner Headley Verity. Then, Gandhi proceeded to add his name to the 16-member list, after which the page ended with his entry as the 17th squad member.

Even though the actual sport never really moved him, Gandhi was apparently exasperated with the practice of untouchability becoming entrenched in cricket. The eminently distinguished spin bowler, Palwankar Baloo was an untouchable by caste. Hence, he never got the chance to captain the Hindus in the Quadrangular tournament.

However his younger brother, Vithal turned out to be even more serendipitous. Invoking Gandhi’s philosophy of abolishing untouchability, he was eventually appointed the captain of the Hindus.

Gandhi’s son was an avid cricket lover

Gandhi’s youngest son, Devadas, also imprisoned for his participation in the Salt March, was a committed follower of cricket. Upon his release from jail, he worked as the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. He devoted the majority of his time to cricket and even managed to obtain the sponsorship for the scoreboard at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi.

After India finally became an independent country, Devadas Gandhi visited London in order to attend a Reuters’ meeting in his capacity as a board member. But, the more relevant reason on his trip to England was to watch the exalted Australian batsman Donald Bradman pulverize the colonial masters. Somehow, he successfully procured complimentary passes for the Test match at Trent Bridge.

When he found out that all hotel rooms in Nottingham were booked, he did not deter. Having found lodging in the quarters of a local jail warden in Nottingham, the Gandhi scion was able to live out his dream which was viewing Don Bradman in action.

In this regard, it is fitting that India and South Africa will compete for the Gandhi-Mandela Trophy which begins on the propitious day of Gandhi Jayanthi.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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