Your most recent book Nation at Play details the history of sports in India and is a sort of comprehensive introduction to the very idea of sports in the country. What was the idea behind the book and which issues have you attempted to highlight through it?
A. While there are quite a few books on cricket in India, there are hardly any that look at the other sports. So one of the reasons for writing a history of sport was to highlight the other sports in India besides cricket. There were other reasons too for writing this book. One, I wanted to examine whether India has a sporting culture going back to the ancient times. Two, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out, historians of India have paid more attention to riots and street battles than to rivalries on the football field. This book is an attempt to rectify that neglect.
Q. You must have gone through a lot of newspaper archival records in order to compile this history. How much time did you spend on researching and collating the material for the book?
A. I did indeed spend a lot of time looking at newspaper archives. Most of this work was done at the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi. I also went through the archives of the Times of India and Ananda Bazar Patrika in their respective offices. Fortunately, some of the major British, American and Australian newspapers are digitised and available online. But I did spend some time in the British Library and the libraries at Lord’s and the MCG. I also got friends living outside India to send me articles from newspapers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle, which I couldn’t access. The library at the National University of Singapore, where I’m currently based, was also a great help. I spent nearly four years doing this research.
Q. In the late ’60s, India was one of the top Asian football teams. If we look back, there were around 25 major national soccer tournaments held in the country every year, which have now come down drastically to merely five tournaments. What’s your take on that and where do you think have we gone astray as a footballing nation, considering we haven’t improved at all in FIFA rankings?
A. This is a difficult question to answer. In the 1950s and ’60s, football and hockey were probably as popular in India as cricket. But from the 1970s India’s poor performance in football and hockey coincided with India’s rise in the cricket world, beginning with the victories over England and West Indies in 1971. This led to a decline in the popularity of football and hockey and consequently affected the ability of these sports to attract talented youngsters. In addition, the infrastructure and training facilities for football and hockey did not keep up with global standards.
Q. Would you put the blame for the decline of hockey, football and other sports in the country on the success of cricket?
A. I have quoted a letter to the editor in my book where the writer says that cricket is the root cause of India’s poor performance in other sports. This is a commonly held view. But it would be simplistic to blame India’s poor performance on cricket’s popularity. There are several countries that do well in multiple sports. What possibly happened was that cricket, because of its popularity, attracted more people to play the sport. The other sports suffered due to their inability to get people to play them. But today things seem to be changing.
Q. What are your views on the politicisation of sports in this country?
A. Since there are a lot of perks as well as prestige attached to sports bodies, it is not unusual that there are plenty of politics around who gets to head sporting organisations. The BCCI is a prime example of that with several politicians vying for the top positions. Of course, now we have a situation where the Supreme Court has stepped in and is trying to clean up things. But the fact is that in elections to bodies such as the BCCI, politicians and businessmen will always have an advantage.
Q. One of the fascinating anecdotes mentioned in your book suggests that the Times of India barely mentioned India’s 1932 Olympics win in hockey — it was mentioned alongside a Bombay local football league game result, if I’m not wrong. Has it always been the case with hockey — the prominence of other games over it?
A. The English language media in India, especially those owned by the British, always seemed to have a bias against hockey and football because cricket was the quintessential English game and also due to the nature of their readership. This began changing somewhat from 1947 onwards. However, newspapers like the Amrita Bazar Patrika covered events such as Mohun Bagan’s IFA Shield win in 1911 in great detail.
Q. According to your book, in the year 2010, out of 35 national sports bodies, 10 were headed by politicians. Don’t you feel that the administration of sports should belong to those who have been actively involved with the game, like ex-players or may be professional administrators?
A. As I said earlier, sports bodies tend to attract politicians. It’s not a given, however, that former sportspersons will automatically be better administrators. While it would be good to have former sportspersons involved in the running of sports, the important thing is to have paid professionals running sports bodies.
“Although Sushil Kumar is a great wrestler and has won several laurels for India, in my opinion Narsingh Yadav has a better claim to represent India in Rio.”
Q. What’s your take on the country’s inability to produce a world class player in athletics? In the past, we had athletes like Milkha Singh, P. T. Usha and others but now there’s a dearth of sports icons who can inspire youngsters.
A. You’re right. There is a dearth of icons in athletics but probably the greater problem is the lack of infrastructure and facilities. Neither does India have a university sporting structure like the United States nor the club system of Europe. Like China, it is the government that is the prime mover in disciplines like athletics in India. A start has probably been made with the government focusing on certain disciplines rather than trying to cover everything.
Q. According to you, what are the reasons for our failure to perform at major sports events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, etc.?
A. Part of the answer to this goes back to lack of infrastructure and facilities. But we must also remember that the effective participating population, as economists put it, in sports in India is still very low. In addition, unlike some countries like Jamaica or Kenya, which have a long tradition of excellence in running, or Iran, which excels in wrestling, India does not have a similar tradition in any individual Olympic event. Also unlike China or the former Soviet bloc, India cannot enforce an authoritarian sporting system to breed champions.
Q. Your views on the ongoing controversy involving the wrestler Sushil Kumar. Do you feel that the Wrestling Federation of India is being unfair to him?
A. Although Sushil Kumar is a great wrestler and has won several laurels for India, in my opinion Narsingh Yadav has a better claim to represent India in Rio. However, it would be great if there was a system of wild card entries in the Olympics for former medalists such as Sushil.
Q. In cricket, there was a time when players used to walk back to the pavilion after snicking the ball, without waiting for the umpire to raise his finger. Contemporary cricketing culture clearly is less gentlemanly. What are your views on the issue?
A. I think cricket was never a gentleman’s game in the way it is made out to be. Even W. G. Grace was known for his gamesmanship and bodyline happened in the 1930s during the Ashes (a bodyline delivery is the one when the ball is bowled intentionally into the body of the batsman along the line of the leg stump). But it is true that instances like G. R. Viswanath recalling an English batsmen in 1979-80, who had been wrongly given out by the umpire, are unheard of now.
Q. Who do you think has been the best Indian captain in cricket?
A. I think the best Indian captain was M. A. K. Pataudi, not so much because of his winning record but in the way he moulded an Indian team which was earlier driven by regional differences. Besides, there was an incredible romance attached to the man and his leadership qualities which hard numbers cannot capture.