Mahatma Gandhi’s cricket connection

Omkar Mankame

The Father of the Nation had interesting connections with India's most popular sport, cricket. On the occasion of his birthday, here are three stories of Mahatma's influence on cricket.

India and the world celebrate 2nd October as the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. The story of how a stuttering and struggling lawyer from India went on to become the symbol of world peace has inspired millions so far and will continue to do so. Born on 2nd October 1869; Mahatma Gandhi is known as the father of the nation in independent India.

Mahatma Gandhi was born on 2nd October 1869 in Porbandar, Gujrat

Being such a humongous figure, Mahatma Gandhi exerted an influence on almost all aspects of the Indians. So how can India’s most favourite sport, cricket, be left out? Although India’s leading independence activist did not play the game himself; he did not oppose the game of India’s rulers either. 

In his life span of 78 years, the great soul came in direct contact of the British game twice and influenced a critical decision in Mumbai cricket once. 

Here are the stories of Mahatma Gandhi’s involvement in cricket -

#1. Making Hindus appoint their rightful captain

Baloo Palwankar was never named as the captain of Hindu team because of his caste

Baloo Palwankar was a slow left-arm bowler of the highest quality and has a rightful claim to be called as the first great Indian cricketer. He learned his trade while bowling practice balls to the European batsmen at the Poona club. Palwankar was the star of the All-India team that toured England in 1911, where he topped the bowling charts with 114 wickets at an average of 18.86.

Despite the heroics, Baloo was never appointed as the captain of the Hindu team that participated in Bombay’s annual quadrangular communal based tournament. Baloo was treated otherwise because he was a member of the ‘untouchable’ cast. The bowler was not allowed to dine and drink with his teammates in the pavilions and was made to sit outside and drink water from an isolated source. The extended effect of this prejudice was in never appointing Baloo Palwankar as the captain of the team despite being experienced and skilled.

Mahatma Gandhi, who was finding his feet at the time in the Indian independence movement, launched a scathing attack on the prevalent practice of untouchability. He made one of his major speeches in Nagpur in 1920 and called untouchability as a great evil in the Hindu society. 

This had a rippling effect on the society at that time, and it soon resulted in the change of traditional views. Baloo’s younger brother and a magnificent batsman, Vithal Palwankar, was appointed as the captain of the Hindu team in 1923. Vithal became the first lower-caste Hindu to lead the team. 

#2. Gandhi is called to decide the fate of the communal tournament

Mahatma Gandhi called for abolishing the tournament based on religious lines

Mumbai (then known as Bombay) was the ultimate centre of cricket in India before Independence in 1947. The city hosted India’s most famous cricket tournament which attracted cricketers and players from every part of the nation. The tournament began with the matches between Europeans and Parsis in 1877 at the Bombay Gymkhana. Hindus joined in 1906, Muslims were added in 1912 and a team named ‘Rest’ was added in 1937 to make it a pentangular tournament.

In 1940, the differences between the Hindu and Muslim community started growing. The famous cricket tournament that was being played on a communal basis was criticized while the Ranji Trophy which was played on the regional basis received tremendous support. 

The PJ Hindu Gymkhana, home of the Hindu team, decided the consult the greatest power in India at that point, Mahatma Gandhi, to arrive at an opinion about participating in the Bombay Pentangular. The Mahatma announced his verdict against the communal tournament and expressed grief over the sport being mixed with religion. The Hindu team followed his words and did not participate in that year’s tournament. The competition was eventually abolished in 1946 with the escalating tension of the partition.

#3 MCC’s 17th player - M.K.Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi signed as the 17th player for MCC

Marylebone Cricket Club in England and remains to be one of the oldest cricket clubs in the world. MCC is still the authority when it comes to deciding the laws of cricket. The English cricket team would undertake every international tour under the name of MCC from 1877 to 1976-77. Mahatma Gandhi has a very interesting connection with the Cricket Club, here is the story.

The MCC touring team arrived in India in 1933 to initiate international cricket in India. Vijay Merchant’s (a leading Indian batsman) sister, Laxmi Merchant, collected the autographs of all the 16 English cricketers that visited the Indian shores. The list included illustrious names like Douglas Jardine and Hedley Verity. 

Laxmi next went to Mahatma Gandhi to take his autograph for her collection. The nobleman leafed through the autograph book for a place to sign. Gandhi eventually noted himself down as the 17th man in the MCC squad and signed “17. M K Gandhi.” This unique act demonstrated how Mahatma Gandhi never harbored any personal grudges against the English men and was only opposed to the tyranny of the British rule.