“The Wolfson History Prize is awarded by the Wolfson Foundation as an expression of the importance of history to the life of the country. The Prize recognises books that brim with brilliance and that break new ground in our understanding of past societies across the globe. These are books which are compellingly written to appeal to all”
– Paul Ramsbottom, chief executive of the Wolfson Foundation,
On the 29th April, the shortlist for the Wolfson History Prize 2020, the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, was announced, recognising the best factual history writing from the past year.
The shortlist demonstrates the incredible breadth and scale which can be found in historical writing, with titles examining centuries or millennia of human history appearing next to intimate explorations of individual lives and short periods of time which nevertheless had a profound impact on wider history.
Several of the six shortlisted titles examine long swathes of history, putting in focus not only the impact of events on society, but also how these histories are then remembered later on.
The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020 will be announced on Monday 15th June 2020 in a virtual ceremony. The winner of the Wolfson History Prize, the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, will be awarded £40,000, with each of the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000.
It is an honour to be part of this very prestigious blog tour and I would like to thank Ben McCluskey of Midas PR for the invitation. I am delighted today to bring you all a fascinating Q & A with Prashant Kidambi, author of Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire. Published by Oxford University Press, it has been described as a ‘superbly executed story of the first All India cricket tour of Great Britain and Ireland’
Prashant Kidambi is Associate Professor of Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester, his research exploring the interface between British imperialism and the history of modern South Asia.
[ Q & A – Prashant Kidambi ]
Tell us about Cricket Country.
Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English,’ it has famously been said. Today, the Indian cricket team is a powerful national symbol, a unifying force in a country riven by conflicts. But India was represented by a cricket team long before it became an independent nation.
Drawing on original archival sources, Cricket Country tells the astonishing story of the first ‘All India’ cricket team. Conceived by an unlikely coalition of imperial and local elites, it took twelve years and three failed attempts before this Indian cricket team made its debut on the playing fields of imperial Britain in the blazing coronation summer of 1911.
This is a tale with an improbable cast of characters set against the backdrop of anti-colonial protest and revolutionary politics. The team’s captain was the Maharaja of Patiala, the young, embattled, ruler of the most powerful Sikh state in colonial India. The other team members were chosen on the basis of their religious identity. Remarkably, two of the cricketers were Dalits, who faced horrendous forms of caste discrimination. Over the course of a historic tour of Great Britain and Ireland, these Indian cricketers participated in a collective enterprise that highlights the role of sport in fashioning the imagined communities of empire and nation.
What inspired you to write Cricket Country?
I have long had an interest in the social and political history of sport. And as an historian of modern India, I have been particularly fascinated by the history of cricket. From the outset, cricket has mirrored both the sectionalism and solidarities of a deeply divided and unequal society. Recovering and recounting the long forgotten story of the first All India cricket team gave me the chance to explore the history of an extraordinary event as well as its relevance for contemporary Indian society.
The project began life as a specially commissioned essay for Wisden, to mark the centenary of the 1911 All India cricket tour of Great Britain and Ireland. But it quickly became apparent that this astonishing story needed a larger historical canvas. That is how the idea for the book took shape. As the research progressed, I began to see the potential to use this unique sporting event to reconstruct a fascinating epoch in the Indo-British relationship.
What most surprised you when writing the book?
There were surprises all along the way! When I began the research, very little was known about this Indian cricket team and its pioneering tour of Britain. It was widely regarded as belonging to the fuzzy pre-history of Indian cricket. Nor did I have any idea at the outset that the 1911 tour was the culmination of a 12-year quest to form a composite Indian cricket team. Indeed, it was a project that galvanised large sections of the cricket-following public in the subcontinent. I also did not fully appreciate at the outset at the role of the Parsi community of Bombay in this history. The stories of the individual team members—drawn from different religious communities and from all parts of India—were equally revelatory, given how little one knew about their stories. I was particularly taken up with the story of the Palwankar brothers—Baloo and Shivram—who overcame entrenched forms of caste discrimination to make it to the first Indian cricket team. But there were other fascinating characters too: Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, Prince Ranjisinhji, and the Muslim cricketers of Aligarh. But it was not only the individual stories that were a source of surprise; the summer of 1911 itself turned out to an important element in the story of the Indian cricketers’ tour. It was one of the hottest British summers on record, marked simultaneously by decorous imperial pageantry and dramatic popular protest.
How did you approach researching Cricket Country?
At the outset, my focus was largely on the making of the first Indian team and the organization of their tour of Britain in 1911. But as I began to dig deeper, my focus widened. The book soon became an exploration of an entire historical epoch.
Fortunately, this is a period for which we have rich source materials, much of it available in archives in India and the UK: official records, newspapers (both in English and Indian regional languages), memoirs, diaries, and private papers. Finding this material was challenging, at times; as was the writing. For no story is simply given; the historian actively shapes the material. Inevitably, making choices about what to include and what to leave out was an important, and agonising, part of the writing process.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I would like readers to be able to read Cricket Country as a work of history that uses sport to explore themes that go beyond the confines of sport. This is a tale about modern India and its imperial legacies, with cricket as the framing device.
We rarely see sport being championed in historical writing; what do you think we can learn from studying the history of sport?
In popular discourse, sport is often conceived as a discrete sphere of human activity that is sealed off from the rest of society. For instance, it is often asserted that sport and politics should not mix. But the historical record shows how sport has always been shaped by the wider contexts in which it is embedded. For instance, my book shows how deeply cricket was implicated in the culture and politics of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Moreover, the project to put together the first Indian cricket team was shaped by race, religion, caste, class, money, and power. As the great C.L.R. James asked: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’
In Cricket Country, you emphasise the importance of cricket to the burgeoning Indian national identity in 1911. Do you think cricket’s influence remains as significant to modern India?
Undoubtedly, cricket is a powerful presence in contemporary India’s raucously divided public culture. As The Economist recently noted, ‘What was once an English summer game has become in India a celebrity-infused, highly politicised, billion-dollar industry. ’ It is also one of the few sports in which India shines on the international stage. For many Indians, the national cricket team is the nation. They celebrate its victories as national triumphs, mourn its defeats as national disasters. Inevitably, as the wider political climate has darkened the national cricket team has increasingly become the vehicle of a jingoistic hyper-nationalism.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize?
I am truly honoured to be shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. Since its inception, the prize has recognized historical scholarship that is accessible to a general readership. Although Cricket Country is based on scholarly research, I wanted this book to reach out to an audience beyond academia. And so I am very pleased that the judges have deemed it worthy of inclusion alongside the wonderful books in this shortlist.
Why do you think history and historical writing remains so popular today?
History today is more popular than it has ever been before. An engagement with the past enables people to make sense of the complexities of the present. And I think the best history writing resonates with readers because it is simultaneously a source of education and enjoyment. History affirms our links with what has gone before even as it forces us to recognize the diversity and otherness of past societies.
[ Book Description ]
‘Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English,’ it has been said. Today, the Indian cricket team is a powerful national symbol, a unifying force in a country riven by conflicts. But India was represented by a cricket team long before it became an independent nation.
Drawing on an unparalleled range of original archival sources, Cricket Country tells the extraordinary story of how the idea of India took shape on the cricket pitch in the age of empire. Conceived by an unlikely coalition of imperial and local elites, it took twelve years and three failed attempts before the first Indian cricket team made its debut on Britain’s playing fields in the Coronation summer of 1911.
This is a tale with an improbable cast of characters set against the backdrop of anti-colonial protest and revolutionary politics. The team’s captain was the embattled ruler of a powerful Sikh state. The other team members were chosen on the basis of their religious identity. Remarkably, two of the cricketers were Dalits. Over the course of their historic tour, these cricketers participated in a collective enterprise that highlights the role of sport in fashioning the imagined communities of empire and nation.
After completing postgraduate degrees in history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Prashant Kidambi was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a doctorate at the University of Oxford. Kidambi’s research explores the interface between British imperialism and the history of modern South Asia. He is the author of The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920 and the lead editor of Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays in Honour of Jim Masselos.
Prashant Kidambi is Associate Professor of Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester.
The books shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2020
The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (Allen Lane) by David Abulafia
A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths (Allen Lane) by John Barton
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Allen Lane) by Toby Green
Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire (Oxford University Press) by Prashant Kidambi
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday) by Hallie Rubenhold
Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press) by Marion Turner