The Maharajah of Porbandar was a better captain than batsman, a fact that, it has to be said, had very little to do with his leadership. The Maharajah was India’s leader on their very first Test tour of England, back in 1932.
When it was over, the joke was that he’d bought more Rolls-Royces than he scored runs. Which was unfair, since the scorebooks show that he made a combined total of eight in the matches he played, and even the most generous estimates are that he only had seven Rolls in his fleet, the best of them a bright white Phantom, numberplate ‘Porbandar’, which he had had shipped over especially from India.
After a run of 0, 2, 0, 2, 2, 2, and 0 in the tour matches, the Maharajah decided to excuse himself from the first, and only, Test, figuring, no doubt, that his form had peaked when he hit a leg glance for two while playing against Glamorgan. He was wise that way, blessed, the next year’s Wisden said, with all the “attributes necessary for his position” except that he wasn’t able to bat, bowl, or catch. But the Maharajah was a natural diplomat. Which mattered, because there was so much civil unrest in India.
Three members of the squad withdrew from the trials in solidarity with Mahatma Gandhi, who was on hunger strike in Yerawada jail. The Maharajah, though, knew just how to butter up the English, and told them all the things they liked to hear. “We hope to do well and we expect to learn a great deal,” he said during a reception at the House of Commons, “but above all we shall play the game on and off the field. That is our mission and by that means we hope to cement still further the bonds of friendship between our two countries.”
Wisden praised the team’s “fine regard for the traditions of the game” and their “modest and correct demeanour at all times”. They lost the Test by 158 runs, but they left “fifty per cent better than when they arrived”.
“Cricket,” wrote Ashis Nandy, “is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” The sociologist was talking about the character of Test cricket. But it is true in other ways, too. The changes in the sport reflect the shift in Anglo-Indian relations over the past century. Everything pivoted in the early 1990s, when India started its programme of economic liberalisation, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India wrested control of the sport away from the English Test and County Cricket Board, which, until July 1993, had power of veto over all decisions taken at the ICC, which was run almost as an adjunct of the MCC.
“The TCCB,” said the then BCCI president IS Bindra, “has not got over the Raj hangover.” The BCCI decided to cure it for them. The ICC was reformed and rebranded, the MCC relegated to a role as “custodian of the laws”. The 1996 World Cup, which England had imagined they would host, was switched to the subcontinent, and in 1997 Jagmohan Dalmiya, a man who once memorably rebuked the English with the line “I wonder how, with this intelligence, you could have ruled us for over 200 years”, became the first Asian president of the ICC.
The IPL followed in 2008, spurred on by India’s success at the inaugural World T20 a year earlier.
For 20 years or so, the English chafed against these changes. They stubbornly refused to release their contracted players to appear in the IPL and fought off an attempt to set up a partnership between the league and the English counties.
The reason they gambled on that $20m deal with Allen Stanford, after all, was because they wanted their own lucrative alternative to the Indian tournament. The friction between the two boards seemed to come out on the field, too, and the series between the teams turned fractious. All of a sudden, the English were throwing jelly beans on to the pitch to taunt Zaheer Khan, Andy Flower was storming the tourist’s dressing room to complain about the way Ian Bell was run out, and Jimmy Anderson and Ravi Jadeja were shoving each other in the corridors at Trent Bridge.
Ninety years after the Maharajah’s team arrived, India are back, and being led by a very modern sovereign, Virat Kohli, a man, Suresh Menon wrote in this year’s Wisden, whose “marriage in December to Bollywood star Anushka Sharma seemed to confirm his royal status”.
Kohli is the superstar captain of the sport’s superpower team, with a wealth, stature and influence entirely beyond the ken of English cricket. He is the only cricketer on Forbes’ list of the hundred richest athletes, and the only cricketer on Time’s list of the hundred most influential people. He is the world’s best Test batsman – since Steve Smith is banned – and he happens to have even more luxury cars than the Maharajah did.
Relations between the teams are easier now. Kohli rightly says that this is because the English are finally playing in the IPL. Time was when English players couldn’t wait to get out of India – “done the elephants, done the poverty, might as well go home” as Phil Tufnell put it in 1993 – now they are so desperate to get there. “There was never that familiarity or sort of warmth between the two teams, purely because we didn’t know the guys enough to be able to have conversations with them,” Kohli said recently. “I think this season has broken that barrier to a great extent.”
Of course the ECB really had no choice but to give in. These days, if you’re not in India, you’re not in the game. So behind Kohli’s line is the tacit suggestion that if everything has now settled down, it’s not down to Indian diplomacy so much as the English finally accepting their lot.