Not a fan, but Gandhi got the power of sport

Mahatma Gandhi. Getty images

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India in 1891, months after completing his law degree in England. Had he stayed on, Gandhi may have registered the sensation Ranji a
fellow Kathiawari, whose letter of introduction was among the three he had carried to England, would go on to cause among cricket lovers in that country.

Whether Ranji’s achievements would have impressed Gandhi is another matter. By his own admission, Gandhi found it difficult to interest himself in sports and held a cricket bat only once during his school years. Those familiar with Gandhi’s early years remember things differently though, recalling evenings he spent playing cricket and tennis and the respect he commanded while umpiring neighborhood matches. A schoolmate went so far as to label Gandhi “a dashing cricketer” who was “good at both batting and bowling”.

However, even these sources mention Gandhi’s disinclination towards physical exercise and with Gandhi’s own writings leaving no doubt on that score, it is perhaps safe to say that the young Gandhi, while not immune to the joys of the playing field, was not enthusiastic about sports. If at any point in life Gandhi did wake up to sports, it was during his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Football was immensely popular among South Africa’s underprivileged at that time, and Gandhi spoke of non-violent protest and equality, distributed pamphlets, and raised funds for community development and legal aid from the sidelines of football matches. The view that Gandhi was initially drawn to football by the game’s near-spiritual spirit and accent on teamwork and only later was alerted to how its popularity could propel his social agenda is debatable.

Football is often lumped with cricket in his generally disapproving views on sports, both during the South Africa years and, more so, after. When asked why Indian Opinion, the paper he established in South Africa, did not carry a sports page, Gandhi first pointed to the paper’s focus on the Indian community’s struggles and then dwelt on how a “sporting mood” hardly sat well against what was unfolding around and how agriculture, “the inherited occupations of Indians – indeed the human race”, was “better than football, cricket, and all games put together” when it came to “developing the body”.

On return to India, to these grumbles got added charges of cricket and football being elitist and expensive. Unsurprisingly Gandhi’s tryst with cricket is limited to just two occasions. On the first, his stance against untouchability boosted an ongoing and ultimately successful campaign to ensure three Dalit cricketers, the brothers Palwankar, got due appreciation and respect from the Hindus, the very side they appeared for in the Bombay Quadrangular, the premier cricket tournament of the time. Gandhi’s second intervention in the matters of cricket was more direct. Approached by a delegation of Hindus to advise on their participation in the 1940 Bombay Pentangular (the Rest had joined the original four sides, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, and European, by then) at a time of global and domestic turmoil and souring Hindu-Muslim relations, Gandhi conveyed his discomfort with the idea of communal Elevens
and appealed to “the sporting public of Bombay to revise their sporting code and to erase from it communal matches”. That prescient warning went unheeded.

Though no great follower of sport, Gandhi clearly was not oblivious to its power to rouse, divide, and distract. And while he was not sporty, he could be playful. When presented an autograph book by Laxmi Merchant, sister of star Indian cricketer Vijay, he picked a page with the signatures of the 16 man MCC squad that had travelled to India in 1933-34 and added himself as the 17th. Topping that page, interestingly, was another man whose actions, albeit differently motivated, shook the foundations of the British empire: Bodyline mastermind Douglas Jardine.

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