After Bodyline and Before India’s First Cricket Test Series, There Was Another

An unofficial cricket tour by Australia at the invitation of the then-Maharaja of Patiala is the subject of a new book by scholar Megan Ponsford. It reveals little-known details of how India was in 1935, restless, unequal, but also playing cricket and bowling googlies, not sure if it will be free of the Raj in just 12 years.

The Has-Beens and the Never-Will-Bes: A Boy’s Own Adventure of Australian Cricket and The Raj, by Megan Ponsford (yes, the scholar-author is also the legendary cricketer Bill Ponsford’s granddaughter) is a gem of a book published this year which brings to light much that we didn’t even know we needed to pay any attention to. Some cricket, Australian cricketers as not quite English sahabs but seeing India and the colonial rule from a unique lens, India’s maharajas, the tumult of the rising freedom struggle against the Raj in the mid-1930s is all meshed together between its covers, and what emerges is truly special.

This is an account of the first cricket tour by Australia in India, an unofficial one, and shortly before India played its first cricket test in England in the summer of 1936. The Aussies came at the invitation of the Maharaja of Patiala, and encountered much by way of India’s trains, its splendours, the ruination inflicted by the Raj and the local princes, the grandeur that were the palaces and the grubby reality of the many thousands they also ran into when veering off script and off the royal road, if only by accident.

Megan Pondford
The Has-Beens and the Never-Will-Bes: A Boy’s Own Adventure of Australian Cricket and The Raj
CricketMASH, 2023

The great Gideon Haigh has written the foreword for this, where he puts in a nutshell the importance of Frank Tarrant who organised the tour, minus any official support. Tarrant was known as Daddy, before Sourav Ganguly was known as ‘dada’, offers Haigh helpfully as a parallel. Tarrant got hold of some decent Australian cricketers, though some off colour and over their prime but all “played very well too, despite the distractions, the exoticism, the epicureanism…they kept politics at an arms’ length declining a meeting with Gandhi, but kept faith with egalitarian values, declining invitations to join any club that maintained a colour bar”.

Interestingly, hearing about the proposed tour of this team to India, Australian newspaper The Age, on October 11, 1935, termed the team as one of “the has-beens and the never-will-bes”. This is where the title of the book comes from.

The Australians had very little love lost for the English, as this was barely two years after Douglas Jardine’s controversial ‘leg theory’ and the bodyline series had left Australia fuming. There is little in the account Ponsford carefully constructs from archival material and newspaper photographs that suggests any sympathy the touring Australians had with British rule in India.

There are several reasons which make this book a compelling read.

For lovers of cricket history, the story of this tour offers glimpses of how cricket, perhaps because it took so long to finish a game, forced players to immerse themselves much more in local lives and events. Being a British import, cricket had gripped the fancy of the yuvarajs, maharajas, nawabs and zamindars, and so a tour of this nature offered a view back in Australia via newspaper reports. The tour may have played a role bigger than just the game on coir mats in building partnerships and fraternity between the subcontinent and Australia, otherwise unlikely to come to know each other.

Australia’s cricket teams, counted as among the most aggressive and sharp teams today, had chapters in their evolution that were starkly different from the reputation the sledging gave them in recent years. Bodyline serves as a reminder, of course of how Australia was not always the more aggressive one on the field. But even this phase in 1935/6 signals an aspect of Australian cricket sensibility where an arduous journey by ship was taken to India, without blessings of the Australian cricket establishment. Had Australia’s officialdom embraced the tour, might it have spelt a different journey for Aussie cricket? Of course, the ’70s saw Australia lurch into a spectacular era, when Kerry Packer, with his night and pyjama cricket, wrote the next phase in world cricket. Developments in Australian cricket left the world stage transformed forever, until we saw IPL deliver the next big shock.

Ponsford’s decade long immersion in the series, after providentially locating a box full of archival material while working at the Melbourne Cricket Club, proves to be really good news for readers. In the latter half of the book, as a photographer herself, she studies the pictures in her grand-uncle Tom Leather’s collection to great effect, pointing to how the difference in official photographs, ‘sanctioned images’ and the more informal ones revealed so much. Snapshot images outside the official ones were “raw and intuitive” and provide a “rare and previously unobtainable glimpse into the everyday cultural life and practice of the tour”. She concludes that photographic analysis “plays a pivotal role in the retelling of the 1935/6 Australian cricket tour of India”. A photograph following the first victory of the Indians against a touring XI in the 20th century at Lawrence Garden in Lahore is among the author’s favourite images, as it allows sporting exuberance to spill over any other differences of a “formalised rigid team composition”.

There is much by way of additional information that the author throws in, so much so that one hesitates to call it trivia. The origins of Peach melba, unknown to many who order it off the menu without batting an eyelid, to date, lie in it developing as a tribute to the well-known Australian singer, Dame Nellie Melba who had died four years prior to the tour, and the Australian team is served a portion of it in Jamnagar. Then there is more information on Prof Deodhar (1892-1993) who was driven by “intense” nationalism and critical of competition by community that characterised cricket then. A Deodhar Trophy lives on but little else about him. Chapter 21, titled Beer, Banquets and a Patiala Peg, invokes M.A. Jinnah and scholar Appadurai on the divisive nature of food consumption in India across community and caste, but Ponsford maintains that the heterogenous diners illustrated the “liberal and progressive foundation that underpinned the tour of India”.

The dismal tour to England and India’s first test match that followed just months afterwards is also detailed by Ponsford. India lost its first test played in England. So maybe just the scores of the matches with Australia should prompt readers to dive into this book. They were recorded as first-class matches not tests, but India managed to draw. 2-2 was the series score.