Complete quote: “I would like the public of Bombay to revise their sporting code and erase from its communal matches. I can understand matches between colleges and institutions but I never understood reasons for having Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and other communal Elevens. I should have thought that such unsportsmanlike divisions would be considered taboos in sporting language and sporting manners. Can we not have some field of life which cannot be touched by the communal spirit?” 

By: Mahatma Gandhi, December 6, 1940, at his Wardha Ashram.

To: Bombay Gymkhana representatives: SA Shete, President; MM Amersey, Vice-President; and Jamnadas Pitambar, member of the managing committee.

The Parsees, the first Indians to take to cricket, toured England in 1886 and 1888, albeit with unflattering results. However, they had their say when they beat GF Vernon’s XI that toured India in 1889-90.

In 1892-93, the Zoroastrian Gymkhana challenged Bombay Gymkhana to a two-match contest. The first match, at Bombay, was washed out after the first day.

The Europeans sneaked a 7-run lead in the return match at Poona before Nasarvanji Bapasola (3/9) and Dinshaw Writer (4/17) bowled them out for 79. ME Pavri (who would later play for Middlesex) top-scored in the 3-wicket chase with 31.

This duel is remembered as the inaugural edition of the Bombay Presidency Match. It became an annual fixture.

As cricket spread in India, especially in Bombay, the Hindu and Mohammedan Gymkhanas were ready to take on the Parsees and the Europeans by the turn of the century. The Hindus beat the Europeans by 106 runs in 1906-07. Palwankar Baloo, a left-arm spinner who could turn the ball, either way, took 8 for 78. Next year they thrashed the Europeans by 238 runs as Baloo took 13/101.

Baloo, India’s first outstanding spinner, would have been an automatic choice for even an All-India team. However, several Hindu members objected to play alongside them, for he was a Dalit (“untouchable”). And surreal goings-on followed once he was selected.

Baloo played alongside other Hindus (he was the biggest name of the side) but was subjected to second-class treatment (including having to lunch outside the dressing room).

And yet, he was the finest performer on the first ever All-India tour, to England in 1911. He never led the Hindus, but his brother Vithal did. Two other brothers, Shivram and Ganpat, also played for them. Baloo went on to become a Dalit social reformer.

From two to three to four to five

The Hindus joined the fray in 1907-08 and the Muslims in 1912-13, thus helping form the famous Bombay Quadrangular. The Hindu-Muslim clash was the most intense contest of the tournament, helping increase its attraction significantly.

The Hindu-Muslim derby “had the intensity of an Ashes Test match,” recalled Shahariyar Khan, later PCB Chairman. “From there it was only a short step to the India-Pakistan matches that followed shortly after independence.”

India was the only major nation where cricket was played during The Great War. With rain proving to be a nuisance, the Quadrangular was shifted from September to December in 1917-18. Around this time, the organisers also drafted in neutral umpires.

The tournament also inspired similar contests across India. However, there was no doubt over the Bombay Quadrangular being the crème la crème of them all. Cricketers from everywhere were recruited, increasing the quality of cricket by manifold. Religion was the only qualification.

There were stray issues. In 1924, the Hindus tried to recruit one PA Kanickam of Bangalore but withdrew the offer once they found out he was a Christian. Being an Indian, Kanickam was ineligible to play for the Europeans as well, so he never got to play the Quadrangular.

Over time the Hindus became lenient. Yadavindra Singh (the Yuvraj of Patiala) and Lall Singh, both Sikh Test cricketers, played for them in 1934-35. They beat the Europeans amidst much cheer, more so because the Europeans had not included Learie Constantine, presumably due to his complexion.

A fifth team, The Rest, was added in 1937-38, to accommodate non-European Christians (the most famous being Vijay Hazare), Sikhs, and other communities. Over time they also recruited Ceylonese cricketers, including the redoubtable Mahadevan Sathasivam.

This was also the season when the larger Brabourne Stadium replaced the Bombay Gymkhana as the venue for the tournament.

The 1940s witnessed some absurd run-scoring from the Vijays, Merchant and Hazare. Hazare had already scored 316 not out in the 1939-40 Ranji Trophy, at that point the highest First-Class score on Indian soil. Now, as World War II tore Europe apart, the two giants took on the bowlers – and each other.

Merchant scored 243 and 221 in the 1941-42 Pentangular. Almost on cue, Hazare got 264 in a Relief Fund match in 1943-44. In that season’s Pentangular he scored 248 in the semi-final and 309 in final. The latter came out of a team total of 377 – after Merchant had scored 250.

Merchant retaliated by setting an Indian record of 359 not out in that season’s Ranji Trophy. In the next season, he got four First-Class double-hundreds and Hazare one. Rusi Modi, a third giant, hit three.

The Pentangular final of this season deserves special mention. Chasing 298 against Hindus, the Muslims were 247/8 before KC Ibrahim and Amir Elahi added 47 for the ninth wicket. The Muslims eventually won by 1 wicket. The entire match attracted two hundred thousand people – fifty times the attendance of that season’s Ranji Trophy final.

The match was played in great spirit. When Hindus captain Vijay Merchant requested the “heavily pitted” bowling creases to be filled, Muslims captain Mushtaq Ali agreed despite being fully aware that his side would lose a definite advantage.

Mushtaq picked up an injury during the match. It was so serious that a doctor insisted he did not take further part in the contest. But Mushtaq did, at the insistence of CK Nayudu, present in the stands that day.

But despite its immense popularity, the Pentangular lasted just one more season, in 1945-46. By next winter the formation of Pakistan seemed inevitable. The chance of a riot over the Pentangular could not be ignored, especially after the brutalities of Direct Action Day in Calcutta on August 16.

BCCI eventually replaced it by the Zonal Quadrangular Tournament, the predecessor of the Duleep Trophy. The idea was suggested by JC Maitra, sports editor of Bombay Chronicle, twelve years ago. However, while the tournament featured most major stars, the crowd response was lukewarm at best.

But the Pentangular was never contested again. And as in most events in Indian history of the period, Gandhi played a major role.

Let us retrace our steps.

“All who hold my opinion must refrain whether few or many”

Despite being formed on religious lines, the Pentangular never witnessed serious communal violence.

That does not mean that it was devoid of religious sentiment. Chants of “down with the Hindus” or “down with the Mussalmans” were not uncommon, as Ramachandra Guha mentioned in A Corner of a Foreign Field.

Chants of “har har Mahadev!” often filled the air from the stands when Ladha Ramji, India’s fastest bowler of the 1920s, charged in with a vermillion tilak on his forehead.

DB Deodhar recalled how he was sledged by Wazir Ali’s men in the 1936 semi-final – and the extent to which the vocal support from the crowd on the small Bombay Gymkhana magnified the impact.

But the chants never led to the animosity of any significance. If anything, the designated Hindu and Muslim tents often featured supporters of the other team. Quality performances by the opposition cricketers were often cheered.

However, cricket was hardly the most important thing going on in India at that point. Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, a response to the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, continued from 1920 till the Chauri Chaura Incident of 1922. It left an impact despite its short stint.

In 1930 the Indian National Congress declared Purna Swaraj on January 26 and Gandhi began his Dandi Satyagraha on March 12. The Satyagraha was not called off before 1934. We have briefly touched upon Lord Willingdon’s response to the movement in these pages.

For our story, it should suffice that the Pentangular was not held from 1930-31 to 1933-34. However, inter-religion tournaments continued in other parts of India.

The Hindu Gymkhana also boycotted India’s 1932 tour of England when Gandhi was imprisoned. India went ahead with three certainties – LP Jai, Vijay Merchant, and Champak Mehta.

The Quadrangular returned in 1934-35, the same season when Ranji Trophy came into being. India now had two major domestic tournaments, of which the Quadrangular was easily the more popular.

The 1934-35 Hindu-Muslim final drew a serious crowd. “Thousands were turned away, and all vantage-points were taken. Instead, people crowded into the tents, with sofas giving way to chairs to allow more people to sit and watch. Outside, late-comers or paupers sat atop buses, trees, poles and apartment buildings,” described Guha.

The same teams again met in the final next season. This time fans across Bombay gathered in public places equipped with radio receivers.

But the public frenzy was not shared by several luminaries. It did not help that the relationship between INC and All-India Muslim League was already on the wane. A debate ensued.

One faction wanted the tournament to be abolished, for the time was not right for a tournament defined by religion. Among them was Duleepsinhji, who requested the fans to focus on the tournament named after his uncle.

As for the other side, let me quote “Bobby” Talyarkhan, India’s first great commentator, on the diversity of the Pentangular crowd: “I ask you now, is or is not the Pentangular, far from being a snag, a solution to communal unity in India?”

Another significant aspect – the greatest of them all – was pointed out by Maitra: “If the sale of tickets at the various Gymkhanas is any indication of its popularity among the votaries of the game, communalism has won with all ten wickets in hand.”

But despite the immense profit, he insisted on an inter-zonal tournament, with teams from North, East, West and South India. We have discussed how prophetic this turned out to be.

The Hindus gave the Europeans a walkover in the 1937-38 semi-final after they were not allotted enough seats at Brabourne Stadium. The Muslims crushed the Europeans by an innings inside two days in the final amidst unanimous cheer throughout the match. Religion did not matter.

But the debate continued. The cricketers were generally in support. Wazir Ali, captain of the Muslims, issued a statement in 1940: “I fully believe that the Pentangular is not, in the least, anti-National and will, and must, go on in the interests of Indian cricket … Every match that I have played in or watched has been played in an atmosphere of perfect sportsmanship and amity.”

The dilemma of the Hindu Gymkhana was immense. Guha pointed out: “Placed against their undoubted love of the Pentangular were the insistent claims of Congress nationalism. With their leaders in jail, and given the insolence with which the Viceroy had treated their offer of conditional cooperation, could they turn up this year at cricket?”

Things took another turn after the British abruptly included India as a participant nation in World War II. With INC members resigning in protest across India, the Hindus reached out to the most important Indian voice at that point.

On December 6, three representatives of the Gymkhana met Gandhi at Wardha.

“Being an astute politician, the Mahatma decided to play the ball with a straight bat and tried to produce a politically correct straight drive,” Kausik Bandyopadhyay wrote in his delightful book Mahatma on the Pitch to summarise Gandhi’s response.

We have produced some part of Gandhi’s response at the beginning of this piece. Guha called it “his most direct, considered and consequential intervention in the world of cricket.”

Five days after, Bombay Hindu Cricket Club sent a telegram to Gandhi, asking whether he wanted only the Hindus to boycott the tournament.

The response was simple: “ALL WHO HOLD MY OPINION MUST REFRAIN WHETHER FEW OR MANY.”

That season’s tournament eventually went ahead with four teams.

But until it lasted, the public continued to back the Pentangular. After the tremendous turnover of 1943-44 (mentioned above: Merchant 250, Hazare 309), The Times of India noted how the Pentangular was “nothing more than clean, healthy rivalry between the various communities,” insisting the “hardy anti-Pentangular joke be dropped once and for all.”

But it could not have lasted despite the following. Fittingly, the tournament ended just before India gained Independence.

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