Marxists, India and the game of cricket

Class inequalities in India rival those in the UK; yet, every IPL auction for players seems to throw up a cricketer who succeeds in making his way out of poverty


Mohammed Siraj, snapped up by SunRisers Hyderabad for Rs2.6 crore, is the son of an autorickshaw driver. Photo: PTI
Mohammed Siraj, snapped up by SunRisers Hyderabad for Rs2.6 crore, is the son of an autorickshaw driver. Photo: PTI

Nobody understands cricket. To understand cricket you gotta know what a crumpet is.”—from the Ninja Turtles.

I used to think it one of the supreme ironies of life that the two finest books on cricket were written by Marxists who were not English—the Trinidadian C.L.R. James and, in his own words, the “deracinated Marxist of American Jewish background”, Mike Marqusee.

Today we should substitute crumpet with mutton do-pyazaa in the quote above, taken from Marqusee’s delightful book Anyone But England: Cricket, Race and Class. You can substitute crumpet with mutton do-pyazaa and no one would care. Indeed, it would seem entirely natural. There is no irony any longer.

The recent auction of players for this year’s season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 tournament and the fascinating second Test match between India and Australia in Bengaluru are a testament to the fact that the once class-bound, Anglo-Saxon game of cricket has found a leveller.

It’s India.

Class inequalities in India rival those in the UK, yet every IPL auction for players seems to throw up a cricketer who succeeds in making his way out of poverty. This year, it was Thangarasu Natarajan who stole the show. The 25-year-old son of a daily wager father and a mother who runs a roadside shack in Tamil Nadu, the fast bowler with a deadly yorker was bought by Kings XI Punjab for Rs3 crore.

He told Hindustan Times, “I am not thinking of the money right now. I never imagined getting so much money. I don’t even know how many zeroes are there in three crore.”

Mohammed Siraj, snapped up by SunRisers Hyderabad for Rs2.6 crore, is the son of an autorickshaw driver. “My father worked very hard. He drove auto all these years but never let financial pressure of the family affect me or my elder brother. Bowling spikes cost a lot and he would just get the best for me,” Siraj said.

Last year, Nathu Singh, a 20-year-old from Rajasthan and yet another fast bowler, fetched more than 30 times his base price of Rs10 lakh to be bought by Mumbai Indians for Rs3.2 crore. Nathu Singh’s father is a factory worker in Jaipur.

The first big thing all three men want to do with their auction money is to build a home for their parents.

Natarajan, Siraj, Singh and a growing number of others are following in the footsteps of seniors from equally poor families, who are now part of the Indian national team.

In the team that humbled Australia at the MA Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru this week were at least two such men who have overcome the poverty of their birth—all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, whose father was a security guard at a shipping complex, and fast bowler Umesh Yadav, the son of a coal mine worker.

These are extraordinary changes in a country where poverty is still widespread and deep, where the game of cricket used to be dominated by men who had been educated in England, or the scions of wealthy domestic elites, including the sons of Maharajas.

This change is taking place in what S. Parasuraman, director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, describes as a “rich nation with many poor people”. How many? According to him, the government poverty line based on minimum calorie intake, which counts 22% of the people as poor, does not give the true picture of the extent of poverty in India because it includes only “those in the most abject circumstances”.

Instead, Parasuraman, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, points to newer benchmarks such as the empowerment line, developed by the McKinsey Global Institute, London. This method calculates the cost for an Indian household to attain basic needs, and compares these with actual consumption data to measure the level of unmet needs. “Based on the empowerment line, 56% or 680 million Indians cannot meet their basic needs; floating somewhere above the poverty line threshold with only a tenuous grip on minimal standards of living, unable to withstand smallest of contingencies. While hunger is a daily fact of life for the poorest of the poor; 40-60% of the population lacks access to basic entitlements such as healthcare, drinking water, and sanitation,” Parasuraman says, quoting a 2014 paper by Richard Dobbs and Anu Madgavkar (Five Myths About India’s Poverty) published by the McKinsey Global Institute.

While it is true that more and more young men and women are stepping out of these poverty traps to grasp at sporting opportunities, none of this would have happened without IPL—one of the more popular innovations of the economic reforms introduced in India in the 1990s.

There is one more fine writer of cricket—and Ramchandra Guha is a real historian—who deserves a quote in a column on cricket in India. Not surprisingly (please just get used to this idea now), he too is a Marxist. At least one half of him is. He describes himself as a Nehruvian struggling with the inner Gandhi and Marx, which, it is safe to argue, places him pretty firmly on the Left of the political divide.

In his book, A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport, Guha chronicles how the challenge to “Anglo-Australian hegemony” was led by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) through measures such as claiming South Asia to be the emerging centre of the game.

“The success of IPL has signalled a second, and further, shift,” Guha writes. “It is now not South Asia, but India which is the centre of world cricket. BCCI is the new, and sole, hegemon.”

The contours of national origin and politics in C.L.R. James, Marqusee and now Guha also capture this historic shift from England to India. It is as much a tale of money power as it is of the continuing process of decolonization and the new aspirations of young men and women.

What a long way we have come from the exclusivity of Englishman James Pycroft, who writes in The Cricket Field in 1851, “Cricket is essentially Anglo-Saxon... Foreigners have rarely imitated us. English settlers everywhere play at cricket; but of no single club have we heard that dieted either with frogs, saur-kraut or macaroni.”

He was of course right in that the French, German and Italians haven’t a clue about cricket. Yet, he couldn’t have imagined in his weirdest nightmare that the son of an Indian coal mine worker would help demolish the Australians one day. Yadav’s favourite food? Not crumpets but Saoji, a spicy dish from Nagpur.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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