The 2002 book A Corner of a Foreign Field by prominent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha is likely categorized as a “sports novel.” It is, after all, an extensive look back at the sport of cricket, arguably the most popular sport in the country. But to consider A Corner of a Foreign Field as merely a sports book is an injustice, as it is more than that. It is way more than that.
A Corner of a Foreign Field is an illuminating look at Indian history, a juxtaposition of a country and sport, and a sociopolitical commentary all rolled into one spellbinding narrative, which is per the norm given the class of writer Guha is and the gravitas he possesses.
Guha masterfully weaves the story of a nation and the sport that has captivated it for generations. One is discussed in the context of the other, not as disparate topics. This consistent collocation works, largely because it shows how India’s history and the sport of cricket are interwoven and forever linked.
The storytelling is sharp, concise, and engrossing, with Guha shedding light on cricket’s colonial beginnings in the Indian subcontinent. The sport, by and large, was a tool for colonisation, a means to unite the ruler and the ruled.
Discussed without grace, this historical treatise could have opened old wounds. But Guha avoids that, tackling India’s colonial past with utmost grace, navigating rough patches with a polished writing that is uniquely Guha’s. He refuses to make judgements for both sides, choosing to tell history as it is.
Guha brilliantly pivots to the Palwankars, a quartet of low-caste brothers who forced India to confront its own inner demon: the repressive caste system. Here, Guha sends a powerful message on the overreaching impact that sports can have, not only on individuals but on society as a whole. Sports can be a unifying force, a great equaliser, or a catalyst for change and cricket did all that — to varying degrees, of course — in India.
That the storytelling in A Corner of a Foreign Field is both masterful and powerful is expected. It was, again, penned by one of India’s very best. But what separates it from other similar books is how detailed the book is — from start to finish.
As the saying goes, “The devil is in the details” and Guha clearly took great pains to ensure that the level of detail in this book is as exhaustive as possible. He pretty much rewrote cricket history in India, presenting facts to disprove long-held notions.
Guha, for instance, refuted the decades-old belief that Lord Harris played a central role in introducing cricket in India, noting that local clubs had already been playing the sport even before Harris arrived in the Indian subcontinent.
A Corner of a Foreign Field also makes the case against C.K. Nayadu being the country’s first great cricketer, with Guha explaining in vivid detail how that honour is better bestowed upon Palwankar Baloo, who predates Nayadu by several years.
This book definitively underscores the worst kept secret in the Indian subculture: That India has a longstanding love affair with cricket. This love affair has endured, even as the sport’s worldwide popularity has waned through the years.
It was India, in fact, that showed the world a template on how to make cricket both popular and profitable, rolling out in 2003 a shorter, simplified version of the sport called Twenty20. Five years later, the Twenty20 got its own league, whose revenue is now in the billions annually.
Test cricket, though, remains the apogee of the sport, especially in the eyes of purists. And with football, eSports, and basketball all looming, it will take a concerted effort to keep test cricket relevant in the coming years. To this end, cricket stakeholders here and around the world will have to get extra creative.
One avenue they can explore in this regard is mobile gaming, itself a booming, lucrative industry that is tapping into a diverse demographic. Fortunately, joining in on the mobile gaming bandwagon can be done organically, as digital brands nowadays are developing all sorts of sports-themed games. The online outlet Slotsource has a cricket-inspired game aptly titled Cricket Star, which brings the sport to a vast, global audience of gamers, many under 30 who may be looking for a sport or two to follow.
Given the long history of cricket in India, one so eloquently elucidated by Guha in A Corner of a Foreign Field, it would make perfect sense for the country to do its part in preserving its storied cricket culture, both as a tribute to the past and as a compass for the future.
A Corner of a Foreign Field may be an “old” book, but it remains relevant because India and cricket remain interwoven. It is an engrossing, illuminating, and informative read that even those not into cricket will definitely enjoy.
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