“Natore and cricket are well connected. A district, which has so many things to make the locals and Bangladeshis proud, can also be proud of such an enriched cricketing history”
Natore is one of the most prominent districts of Bangladesh and borders the Rajshahi City. It has two sugar mills, which contribute to the economic progress of Bangladesh. The region is always in a festive mood due to the haats, bazaars and fairs, the Bonolota Sen of Jibanananda Das and the Kachagolla (a famous sweetmeat made by curdling the milk, separating the whey and adding sugar) of Natore has brought the district fame at home and abroad.
Once upon a time, Natore was a large water body. In 1706 Raja Ramjibon Rai filled up the major parts of the water body and established his capital. Life started to take a new turn in Natore. The Maharajas of Natore, gradually, made the district, one of the most prominent bodies of the undivided Indian subcontinent. They emphasized on a better education, strong economy, healthy practice in arts and culture and, Natore was not far from developing a sporting culture during the Bristish Raj when they embraced cricket with heart and soul and made a huge impact in spreading the sport in Bengal.
In 1721, the British sailors played a cricket match among themselves in the port of Kambay. The soldiers used to indulge in sports to combat homesickness. These matches were attended by local spectators. Cricket was not an easy game to pick, but the locals could not but take it seriously and from then on, the English game started to take a deep root in the subcontinent.
Cricket historian Boria Majumdar in his book, Cricket in Colonial India (1780-1947) wrote, “From the earliest years of British settlement in India, cricket was nurtured by leading public figures, military commanders, educators and journalists. Consequently, it was natural for men of status and affluence in India – the princes or Maharajas – to take up the alien sports. Maharaja patronage of sports was an established practice in India by the middle of the eighteenth century”.
The Maharajas of Indian subcontinent loved big-game hunting to lift their status and then took polo, golf and horse racing seriously. It was all part of uplifting their status and, in the course of time, they would focus on promoting cricket. When they started to promote this game, according to Boria Majumdar: “For some aristocrats, cricket was a tool of social mobility., for others, it was a mean of challenging the British Masters by defeating them on their own turf. For some others, however, much more than achieving social mobility by emulating the colonizers, it was a mean to further other ambitions, gain economic stability and political power over other rivals”.
Certainly, cricket did become an effective political tool and one of the mediums to gain social mobility and at the same time, cricket became the tool of peer rivalries between the Maharajas of various states, which contributed to the make this game even more popular in this part of the world.
The rivalry between Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, and Maharaja of Natore, Jagadindranarayan Ray, became one of the most important factors ever to spread cricket in Bengal.
The Maharaja of Cooch Behar, before the first World War, had maintained at least three cricket teams at his own expense. Professional cricketers like Joe Vine, George Cox and Frank Tarrant featured in his team. The Cooch Behar XI was well-balanced and even challenged the other best teams with enough guts and authority.
The might of Maharaja of Cooch Behar ignited the Zamindari state of Natore. Jagadindranarayan Ray decided to build a cricket team around 1906. He recruited players like P. Vithal, J.S. Warden, P. Shivram and K. Seshachari.
Maharaja Ray was determined to take the upper-hand and improve more and more. And thus, he purchased 45 acres of land at Bondel Road near old Ballygunge in south Kolkata. He converted the whole expanse into a cricket field. Maharaja Ray built his team, which featured a greater proportion of locals, especially the Bengalis, and attracted a lot of Bengali spectators to not only cheer for his team, but to practice the game as well.
Hemachandra Ray, commenting on the cricket patronage of Maharaja of Natore, expressed, “At the time when Natore team dominated Bengal cricket, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar had also formed a quality cricket team. However, we Bengalis could not rejoice at the victories of Cooch Behar side. This was because Bengalis were a marginal presence in the Cooch Behar team and hence the credit for these victories went to the European players of the team”.
The Maharaja of Natore was a nationalist at heart and soul and for some years, he was an active member of the Indian National Congress. At the age of 18, he became the President of Natore Political Association at the request of Surendranath Banerjee. In 1894, he joined Banerjee and Anondamohan Bose to become the member of Rajshahi Municipality. After the partition of Bengal in 1905, he was the key figure in anti-partition movement. His nationalistic sentiments were evident in his cricketing interests as well.
For the Maharaja of Natore, the cricket turf was not just a simple ground, but he took it as a battlefield – his ambition was to teach the British Raj a lesson via their own game. While the Maharaja of Cooch Behar recruited players from England, Maharaja Ray stuck only to Indians.
To develop Bengal cricket, he invited Saradaranjan Ray to coach his team. Later on, Muktidaranjan and Kuladaranjan, the two brothers of Saradaranjan Ray joined the Maharaja of Natore to promote cricket in Bengal and India.
The Maharaja of Natore was so determined to fulfil his dreams, that he left no stone unturned to save the life of his adopted son Srishchandra Ray. He hailed from a poor family and his father a clerk at Natore Court. Srishchandra was an aspiring young cricketer, but all of a sudden, he fell ill and died, which left Maharaja Ray stunned! He spent a month in Shantiniketan to forget the tragic loss – a matter, which even surprised Srish’s own parents alongside the members of Royal Family.
While selecting the team, Maharaja Ray did not consider castes. His inclusion of Mani Das, a Hindu of lower-caste did not charm the upper-class people surrounding him, but he considered Mani as a better cricketer than the famous Bengal cricketer Kaladhan Mukherjee.
Maharaja Ray said: “Among the current lot of Bengali cricketers, Mani Das is one of the very best. I had sent him to open the batting against Gwalior. He wasn’t willing to open and was afraid of performing poorly in front of his more illustrious teammates. Noting this apprehension, I called him and said, ‘We’re Bengalis! In a predominantly Bengali cricket t,eam it is the duty of the Bengalis to take the lead’. Upon hearing this he touched my feet to take my blessings and went out to the middle to play an innings that proved invaluable for the team in the end”.
The Maharaja Ray then selected players like the great ‘untouchable’ left-arm spinner Palwankar Baloo –to build a strong Natore side and became one of the best cricket combinations in Colonial India when players like Ganpat and Vithal joined.
The Natore team became a symbol of pride for the Bengalis. Their victories freed this community from a sense of inferiority complex. Maharja Ray’s cricketing ambitions were not limited to playing the game and gain an upper-hand over his arch-rivals, but the promotion of the spirit of the game was also a very important part of it. Playing the game fair was his way. In one of the games against the Lawyers of the High Court, the umpire adjudged one of the Natore batsmen run out. The striker had hit the ball to the bowler, who failed to stop it and the ball hit the stumps at the other end. The umpire thought, the ball had hit the hand of the bowler before hitting the stumps.
The bowler, Purna Ray, went up to the umpire and requested him to reverse the decision as he thought he did not touch the ball. The Maharaja of Natore intervened immediately and stated, it was against the norms of the game and the batsman was out. The Maharaja respected the umpire’s decision and held the spirit of the game highly. The Umpire, who was scared, was assured by Maharaja Ray, it was just a human error and it happens.
But the enthusiasm of Maharaja Ray regarding cricket lasted till 1914. The Maharaja of Cooch Behar had died a few years earlier and gradually, Ray’s interest in cricket started to wane. He concentrated on promoting Bengali literature and his subsequent involvement with Bangiya Sahitya Parishad halted the progress of cricket in Bengal.
Why the Maharaja of Natore gave up promoting the game, which he loved so dearly, remains a moot question. Perhaps, all his nationalistic sentiments and passion for the game cropped up to dent the pride of his arch-rival, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, which faded as soon as he died. But whatever the reason was, the Maharaja of Natore had played a vital role in popularizing cricket in Natore and Bengal.
Natore and cricket are well connected. A district, which has so many things to make the locals and Bangladeshis proud, can also be proud of such an enriched cricketing history.