Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka Mahatma Gandhi aka Bapu was a normal human being who was born in a village in Gujarat. But how did he become the ‘Father of the nation’? Well, it was Gandhi’s deeds that made him not only a national icon but an internationally admired figure. While Gandhi’s contribution to India’s freedom is not a mystery, his cricket connection may not be known to many.
As the whole world celebrates Gandhi’s birth anniversary (Jayanti) on 2 October, we look at the influence Gandhi had on the game of cricket. Bapu was never an ardent follower of cricket or of any sport for that matter. He always maintained a distance from sports. In fact, he believed that sports should not occupy much of the school curriculum. Gandhi also used to believe that sports occupy unnecessary space in an adult’s life.
But an anecdote of him signing as the seventeenth man for England’s cricket team that toured India in 1933 is rather a humorous story on Gandhi’s part. It’s said that when Laxmi Merchant, sister of India’s legendary opening batsman Vijay Merchant, had gone to Bapu with the book that had autographs of 16 English cricketers of the team, Gandhi, instead of signing on another leaf, stayed with the page and wrote No. 17 and signed it M K Gandhi.
While this was the only instance where Gandhi was directly involved in something related to cricket, there are many such stories where the Indian leader had an indirect impact on the sport. Most of these stories had Gandhi’s beliefs regarding certain social practices impacting the decisions taken by sportspeople. In one such story, Gandhi’s anti-religion beliefs resulted in PJ Hindu Gymkhana pulling out of a Pentangular tournament that pitted Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Europeans, and the rest.
In another story, Gandhi’s strong beliefs against untouchability, a widely practiced social belief back then, led to a change in how the Hindus team chose its captain. Vittal Palwankar, one of three dalit brothers who were an integral part of the team, was made the captain of the side in 1923 and was also carried on the shoulders of his teammates when the team won the tournament under his leadership.
Gandhi’s influence was not limited to India, it had a global impact. South Africa, which was gripped by another awful social practice, apartheid saw it getting scrapped after the country was banned from international cricket. And it was Gandhi’s India that first toured the country when it gained back its status in 1991 and the two teams play Gandhi-Mandela trophy to date.