There wasn’t much of a fanfare when England’s cricketers flew back for the one-day series, and I suppose we should be grateful for that. When Nasser Hussain’s team jetted off for the Test series at the beginning of the winter, there were endless “tour in jeopardy” headlines, and several players declined to make the trip on the grounds that India, if you looked at a very small-scale map, seemed a mite too close to Afghanistan for the lads’ liking. There was also a row concerning the penalties handed out to India’s players in South Africa by the match referee, the former England captain Mike Denness. Right up until the first day of the first Test match, it was unclear whether the series would actually go ahead.
This time, the team slipped in quietly. As it happens, India really is juddering on the brink of something like a serious war with Pakistan, yet nobody seems concerned. The row over Denness, though, has been given fresh energy by cricket’s ruling body, which, in a calculated snub to India’s amour propre, has appointed a slightly loaded inquiry committee. So the present muted atmosphere might prove to be fleeting. England versus India has become an acrimonious fixture and, true to form, our first move on arriving in Calcutta was to complain about the net facilities.
Yet this ought to be one of the most resonant contests in the sport. The jewel in the crown looking to put one over on the former colonial tyrant; a mighty subcontinent, with its millions of cricket-lovers, against a cramped island with a dwindling interest in cricket; a tropical and Himalayan landscape against a grey, suburban one; the inventors of the game against, perhaps, its future kings. All these rich cultural resonances rarely intrude on the trading of punches about umpires, food, nets and travel.
It was possible, however, in the third of the recent Test matches, to catch a rare glimpse of something more epic. Among the jaunty handwritten banners unfurled in Bangalore (Six Plus Four equals TENdulkar!!), one read: “This game is related to the Lagaan game”. The commentators did not explain what this meant, but I happen to be in a position to assist. Lagaan is the title of a remarkable Bollywood film about cricket which was released last year to great acclaim in India: it was recently awarded eight out of Zee Cinema’s top ten film awards. In England, it clung on in a handful of cinemas and won a modest amount of discreet, art-house approval, but it is on the shortlist for both an Oscar and a Bafta, and will be re-released later this year.
It isn’t at all an art-house kind of film. On the contrary, it’s an exuberant musical: a cross between Oklahoma! and The Magnificent Seven built around a single cricket match between the British officer class and a tiny Indian village in the late 19th century. The “lagaan” of the title refers to the tax imposed by the British on the villagers who fell under their jurisdiction, and the film opens with news that the levy, on a malicious whim, has been doubled. But it hasn’t rained for years (despite some fabulous rain dances) and no one can afford to pay. The game turns into a terrific gamble: if the village wins, it will be spared the tax; if not, the tax will be tripled. So the game matters; lives are at stake. This subverts the usual formula by which lives filled with games seem trivial. As the glamorous skipper of the rebels (the producer and pin-up Aamir Khan) assembles his magnificent eleven, all the best cliches of imperial haughtiness are invoked. I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that the match itself is a satisfying comic-book triumph.
The world has moved on, but not much. Many of these echoes reverberate today, in the loftiness with which the game’s traditional rulers (England and Australia) comport themselves. There seems to be a residual sense that India is a third world country full of jolly but dodgy natives, not quite up to the job of staging a proper cricket match.
Yet India these days is not just the twitchy soul of the game – the internet vibrates with the Indian love of cricket – but also its wallet: Indian television and marketing rights are the biggest game in town. And it is fast laying down the gauntlet for a different cricketing philosophy than the one that has held sway (just about) so far. In place of a cool, sedate mythology of the gentleman’s pursuit, India proposes a more raucous, explosive and euphoric theatre of spin and seam. It has a marked preference for one-day games – two Indians, Tendulkar and Kumble, have played more one-day internationals than the entire 16-man England squad. The grounds will be packed and very noisy – an atmosphere usually described by visiting English teams as “intimidating”.
There is, in all this, more than enough raw material to inspire a modern sporting rivalry. But the ancient stuff – as the “Lagaan” banner showed – can still make pulses race a bit. What it needs, this now historic clash of near-opposites, is a genuinely symbolic trophy, like the Ashes, to play for. It could have mystical overtones: a phial of water from the Ganges, or a tiger’s tooth. It could have Anglo-Indian connotations: a pair of jodhpurs, or the roasted bat of Prince Ranjitsinhji. Or it could be a sporting memento: one of Mike Gatting’s empty beer mugs, say, or Kapil Dev’s moustache. But why not play for something truly valuable: the Koh-i-Noor diamond, for instance, the monstrous precious stone with which a Punjabi maharaja once fobbed off Queen Victoria’s imperial demands. A modern contest with the jewel of the crown jewels up for grabs. That really would be something.
Hunter Davies is on holiday