July 4, 2014 12:52 pm

Indian cricket’s amazing half-century

When India’s players toured England in 1959, they were still suffering ‘colonial hangover’. Five decades on, their modern counterparts are crucial to the sport’s financial wellbeing
The Queen meets the Indian cricket team, 1959©Topfoto

The Queen meets the Indian cricket team during their match at Lord’s in 1959

On Wednesday morning, as a Nottingham-based Indian businessman settles into his box at Trent Bridge to watch England and India’s cricketers, he will shake his head in wonder. The last time India played a five-match Test series in England was in 1959, when the first Test was also in Nottingham. In the intervening half-century, his own life has changed dramatically, as has the game he loves and both the country of his birth and the one he has adopted.

Nat Puri, 75, is no ordinary cricket spectator. Often described as Nottingham’s richest man, he has, over the past 40 years, built up a business empire in packaging, paper, engineering, textiles and plastics and, through his Puri Foundation, funded several educational projects including a scholarship fund at Nottingham University. He is a Freeman of the City of Nottingham and an honorary life vice-president of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club. This last honour recognises the part he has played in redeveloping this historic English ground, which was established in 1838, and has been the home of such cricketing greats as Harold Larwood and Garry Sobers. Over the years, he estimates, he has given almost £1m to Trent Bridge. “That’s a lot of money. I couldn’t have imagined doing all this when I arrived in this country.”

Puri happily confesses that, when it comes to India and England, he fails the “Norman Tebbit cricket test” and has been quick to honour Indian cricketing achievements. When, in 2004, Virender Sehwag became the first Indian to score 300 runs in a Test innings, Puri held a lavish party at Notts County Football Club’s ground and presented Sehwag with £50,000 in cash.

Puri initially came to England when he was 27, as a maths graduate hoping to find a job in engineering. He arrived in Nottingham a few years after the 1959 series, from an India that many experts predicted could not survive. “India was considered a basket case and was so poor that America sent us food under a special Congressional law. Before I could leave I had to get a form signed by the Reserve Bank and I was allowed £3 in foreign exchange. The joke was that it was enough to buy you a Scotch on the Air India flight to London.”

But during his first few months he wondered why he had left India. “Indians [in Britain] were mostly working in factories, very few people had professional jobs. I don’t think anybody in this country knew much or bothered about India. Now you see a Ratan Tata interview on the front page of the Financial Times, but then few people had heard of the Tatas.”

‘Our cricketers surrendered mentally to the English in the dressing room even before the game began’

He realised that to get the English to even pronounce his name properly he would have to change it. Nathu Ram was too difficult for English tongues, so he became Nat. Despite this, he could not get an invitation to an English home. “It surprised me that very few people would invite others to their homes. Then I discovered that this is because their homes were so terrible. When I came to Nottingham, half the houses had outside toilets.” He found this particularly shocking, since the British had introduced en-suite bathrooms to India. “We thought in their own country every English bedroom must have an attached bathroom.”

Such is Puri’s success that the locals now seek his invitations. At the Nottingham Test against India, his box will be visited by former cricketers, prominent bankers, businessmen and politicians, including Ken Clarke, local MP and cricket lover. But Puri will recognise other changes too. “The majority of spectators will be Indians. The Indian cricketers will feel like they are playing at home.”

The 1959 Indian cricket team could never have felt at home. Madhav Apte made his debut for India six years earlier and, although he was not in the team that toured England, he came to watch his brother Arvind make his Test debut. Now 81, he recalls: “Back in 1959 the environment was still extremely British, you hardly ever saw a brown face. Sometimes a black face but browns were very few. The British view of the Indians was still coloured by the empire and that they had ruled us. There were only two Indian restaurants in London. We were poor cousins.”

India’s current captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni©Roger Mann

India’s current captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni in action in 2012

Despite this, the Indians were not totally friendless. The England team had a cricketer of Indian origin, who played against the Indians in the fifth Test of the series, at the Oval. Raman Subba Row was born to an Indian barrister father and an English mother. He looked Indian, had played cricket in India and developed a bond with many Indian cricketers, in particular the Apte brothers. But he was educated at a private school and at Cambridge and was, as he says himself, “a gentleman cricketer, who did not get paid as opposed to professionals who were paid”.

This was significant. As Subba Row, 82, recalls: “It was the era of gentlemen and players and there were separate dressing rooms. At the Oval the amateurs’ dressing room was on the first floor, where the committee room is now. The professional one was downstairs. The home and visiting teams’ amateurs would change together but there was a separate changing room for the visiting professionals.”

It was as though English cricket felt amateurs of opposing teams, being gentlemen, could be trusted to keep the secrets of their teams but rival professionals had to be kept apart. The amateurs and professionals also took the field through separate entrances. At the Oval, says Subba Row, “the professionals went in by the side entrance”.

Former England cricket captain Ray Illingworth, 82, was a professional with Yorkshire in those days. A vital member of the home team that summer, he recalls how segregation created problems for those who weren’t amateurs. “You could go somewhere like Essex, which didn’t have very big dressing rooms. You had two dressing rooms for the professionals, which could get about five people in, and you had to put your bags outside while you got changed.”

Seven years earlier, on India’s previous tour of England, England had finally appointed a professional captain, the Yorkshireman Len Hutton. But Yorkshire refused to make him captain and, in 1959, the county was still led by an amateur. “Yorkshire was very snobbish in how they treated their players,” says Illingworth. “It was embarrassing.” This put the amateur Indians, despite being brown, on a higher pedestal than the English professionals but it couldn’t help them on the field.

As Apte observes, the visitors could not get over their “colonial hangover”. It was only a decade since Indian independence and most of the 1959 tourists had been born during the Raj. “Our cricketers were overawed at the thought of going to England,” says Apte. “They surrendered mentally to the English in the dressing room even before the match began.”

‘An Indian tour is in the economic sense, if not emotionally, even bigger than Australia”

It did not help that the Indians knew nothing of their English opponents. For much of the 1950s India had struggled to get overseas teams to tour India and had to make do with a visiting side composed of players from various countries, put together by George Duckworth, a former Lancashire and England player. It was as a member of this side that Subba Row had been to India. England sent only one side to India during the decade but, with most of the country’s leading cricketers preferring to have a winter off in order to prepare for more arduous battles with the traditional enemy Australia, even this was very much a B-team. The captain Nigel Howard had never played for England. He only ever played four times for the national team, all as captain in India.

Some of the Indians’ problems were self-inflicted. Datta Gaekwad, who was close to the Baroda royal family, had not even expected to be included in the touring party but was subsequently made captain. John Arlott, writing a diary of the season (Cricket Journal 2) was convinced the England selectors would have no problem “picking 11 men to beat India – that could be done four times over . . . ”. He was equally blunt about Gaekwad, “a naturally unobtrusive man who seems not to lift his team”.

India lost all five Tests, two of them inside three days. This one-sidedness made the English cricket administrators nervous – in an era when the only income came from gate money, they were worried they could be faced with a severe loss of earnings if crowds lost interest. During the fourth Test in Manchester, Colin Cowdrey, England’s captain, dramatically announced he would not enforce the follow-on, thereby ensuring spectators could be certain of seeing more play. As it happened, the Indians showed unexpected resistance and this was the only Test that went into a fifth day. Some of the Indians were insulted by Cowdrey’s statement but they could do nothing as England called the shots.

The Indian team arriving in Britain for the 1959 Test series©Graham Morris/cricketpix.com

The Indian team arriving in Britain for the 1959 Test series

The situation in 2014 could not be more different. Spectators at the match now provide only a small part of the income, with the bulk of the money coming from the sale of television rights. The insatiable appetite of the 500m-plus Indian middle class for televised cricket means there is a huge market in which cricket authorities can sell their rights. The Indians have exploited this to the full, launching the Indian Premier League, where each side bowls just 20 overs and a match lasts no more than three hours. So successful has been the IPL that, only six years after its launch, its brand value is said to be worth more than $3.5bn. The capacity to generate such revenue has put the country in the driving seat globally and it is estimated that India contributes some 90 per cent of world cricket’s income.

Rod Bransgrove, chairman of Hampshire County Cricket Club, which will host the third Test of the coming series, says: “In 1959, the Indians came here on sufferance, now the English want them to come because India is a big market and England can make huge money by selling its television rights to the Indian market. It makes an Indian tour in the economic sense, though not emotionally, even bigger than Australia.”

This is crucial for the sport’s future. In 1959, county cricket still attracted large crowds in England. Illingworth recalls: “We would be expecting to get 10,000 or 12,000 at a county match most days. When we were playing the Roses matches [Lancashire v Yorkshire] we’re talking 30,000. In those days people would arrange their holidays to watch county cricket.”

Today, the most Bransgrove can hope for at a county match is between 800 and 1,000, and that is for “the first day of a game at a weekend”. This is at a ground that holds 15,000. The loss of crowds for domestic matches has completely transformed the economics of the game.

“Without international cricket,” says Bransgrove, “domestic cricket in any part of the world would be struggling to exist.” So the larger the international income, the better, and with the Indian market the biggest in the world, all Test-playing countries want India to come calling.

The Indians demand a heavy price for their participation in an overseas tour, though. Their marketing men have worked out that what matters in modern cricket are “eyeballs”, meaning those watching television. And more eyeballs are attracted to one-day matches than five-day Tests. So India normally play as few Tests as possible. During last winter’s tours to South Africa and New Zealand they played just two Tests in each country and have not taken part in a five-Test series for 12 years. The English board had to work very hard to persuade the Indians to come on this five-Test tour.

Bransgrove says: “They agreed to play five Test matches but they wanted to come only for a certain window, so the Test matches have been squeezed in one after the other. It is very tight.”

So tight that 25 days of Test cricket is completed in six weeks, with the result that the Test in the Rose Bowl starts on a Sunday. “It is a handicap,” admits Bransgrove. “Traditionally, India Test matches are packed but it is going to be more difficult for people to book for the Monday and Tuesday.” Despite this, he is optimistic about selling out and hopes to “make a six-digit figure” from the Test.

As far as Bransgrove is concerned, “what we have to recognise is that there has been a cultural shift, the power of the Indian subcontinent has increased over the years and cricket has gone with it”.

As for Nat Puri, over the next week in Nottingham, nothing would please him more than to see India punch its weight not just off the field but on it, in a way it could not have dreamt of doing in 1959.

Mihir Bose is the author of ‘A History of Indian Cricket’

Photographs: Topfoto; Roger Mann; Graham Morris/cricketpix.com

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