At the outset, there is nothing significant about the year 1721, as far as India's political history is concerned. Aurangzeb, the sixth of the great Mughals, had passed away in 1707, and the Empire he and his forefathers had built, had started to disintegrate. The Marathas were gaining in prominence, and in the process of knocking hard on the doors of Delhi. These were prominent happenings; what was peripheral was that 'merchants' from England and France had established 'settlements' in select areas of the subcontinent, and were going about their business of trade.
The sea-route being the sole link between them and their respective homelands, most of these settlements were situated in the coastal areas of the Indian peninsula.
It was sometime in 1721 that a British ship dropped anchor off the coast of Kutch in western India. The recreational activities the sailors indulged in on the coast elicited curious reactions from onlookers. One of the sailors, who answered to the name of Downing, recalled his time on the Kutch coast in his memoirs thus: "We everyday diverted ourselves with playing cricket and other exercises"
This is the earliest recorded reference to cricket in India.
As the merchants metamorphosed into rulers, they continued to demonstrate their recreational pursuits on Indian soil. The British army took on the English settlers in what was the first recorded cricket match in India in 1751.
The establishment of the Calcutta Cricket Club (what we know today as CC & FC) in 1792, was another watershed for the sport in the land. In fact, it is the second-oldest cricket club in the world, after the MCC (1787).
Ten years after its inception, the CCC organized a match between its team and the Old Etonians. The highlight of the game was Old Etonian Robert Vansittart's hundred. It was the first 'recorded' century on Indian soil.
That game was watched by the locals, as were other encounters that took place elsewhere.
It was but natural that the locals sought to copy what the 'rulers' were doing. Recent evidence suggests that members of the Indian army were among the first to take to the sport. The 'sepoys' of regiments based in Sylhet (now part of Bangladesh) were reported by a periodical of the time as being more energetic and cheerful cricketers than their European superiors. The latter did not mind this, and were in fact happy to engage in matches against their subordinates.
The Parsis were the first Indian civilian community to take to cricket. They set up the Oriental Cricket Club in Mumbai in 1848. It did a premature death, but the community then established the Young Zoroastrians Club in 1850. They were followed by the Hindus, who formed the Hindu Gymkhana in 1866. The scene of the cricketing activities of the Mumbai locals was the Esplanade 'maidan,' which was situated in front of the western ramparts of the erstwhile Bombay 'Fort' (demolished in 1860). At the far end of this 'maidan' was a plot of land that was out of bounds for dogs and Indians - the Bombay Gymkhana.
Cricket was also gaining in popularity in other cities at around the same time. 1884 was an eventful year, in that a team from Sri Lanka played a match in Kolkata. It was the country's first shot at international cricket. The Parsi Gymkhana was set up in Mumbai in the same year. A year later, Kolkata hosted a match between the Presidency Club and a team from Australia.
The relative economic stability of the Parsis was instrumental in their sending a team on a tour of England in 1886. Dr. D.H. Patel, one of the leading cricketers of the time, was named captain.
At the team's send-off in Bombay, Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the eminent Indians of the time, stated the squad's objective; "As artists go to Italy to do homage to the Great Masters, or as pilgrims go to Jerusalem to worship at a shrine, so now the Parsis are going to England to pay homage to the English cricketers, to learn something of that noble and manly pastime in the very country that is cricket's chosen home."
As was expected, the Parsis could not get the better of their seasoned opponents, but they gained a lot of experience. The second Parsi outfit that went to England in 1888 was far more confident than its predecessor. The visitors exceeded all expectations, winning eight matches, losing eleven, and drawing twelve. Their most successful cricketer was the round-arm bowler Dr. Mehellasha Pavri, who took as many as 170 wickets.
The British sent a team to India in 1889-90 under the captaincy of G.F. Vernon. The main aim of the team was to play against Englishmen living in India. Critically from the Indian point of view, one game was scheduled against the Parsis, in the light of their impressive showing in 1888. In what was a red-letter event for Indian cricket, the Parsis prevailed by four wickets. It was the first cricket defeat suffered by the British on Indian soil, and indeed, their first 'defeat' of any kind since they had crushed the War of Independence in 1857.
However, while they were unremitting on the political front, the British were supportive on the sporting one. Lord Hawke's team that toured India in 1892-93 made room for two matches against the Parsis, wherein the spoils were shared.
Lord Harris, one of the game's influential figures of the time, did his bit in his capacity as Governor of the Bombay Province to further Indian interest in cricket. He instituted an annual 'Presidency' match between the Europeans and the Parsis, and also earmarked land on the Mumbai seafront, for the Parsis, Hindus and Muslims to set up their respective 'Gymkhanas' and 'maidans.'
The game had by then spread across the subcontinent. It gained a fillip in the 1890s when the Prince of the state of Nawanagar wowed all those in England who thronged to watch him bat. Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji was elegance personified on the cricket field. His fascinating wristwork and unconventional shot-making skills were a revelation to the British, who were born and bred on an orthodox approach. His success, first for Sussex in the English County Championship, and then England in Test cricket, made him one of the most popular personalities in the Empire 'where the sun never set.'
His fellow Princes were quick on the uptake. Some of them took it upon themselves to do their bit for cricket, to facilitate their entry into the 'good books' of the British rulers.
The 'princely' influence worked wonders for cricket in India, as did other parallel developments. The annual Presidency match between the Europeans and the Parsis became a Triangular when the Hindus joined the fray in 1907. It became a Quadrangular in 1912 with the entry of the Muslims. The Christians and Anglo-Indians came together to form a 'Rest' team in 1937, thus making the annual event a Pentangular. The tournament was played till 1945-46, after which it was banned on account of its communal overtones.
1911 witnessed the first-ever tour of England by an 'All-India' team. Sponsored and captained by the Maharaja of Patiala, the team featured the best cricketers of the time. The top performer was the left-arm spinner Baloo Palwankar, who bagged over a hundred wickets. It was a memorable performance in more ways than one. A member of the so-called 'untouchable' segment of the Hindu society, Baloo underwent many a reverse early in his life. However, merit eventually superseded all the other factors, and Baloo went on to become the premier member of the Hindu side. He also captained them for a number of years in the annual Quadrangular.
An all-rounder from Nagpur made his first-class debut in the 1916 edition of the tournament. He batted at no. 9 in his first game against the Europeans, and got off the mark with a six. As the years passed, the young man gained prominence as a flamboyant batsman and inspirational captain.
The outbreak of World War I prevented visits by cricket teams from England to India in the 1910s. It was in 1926, eight years after the end of the War, that two representatives of the Calcutta Cricket Club travelled to London to attend a couple of meetings of the Imperial Cricket Conference.
Technically, the CCC should not have been allowed to participate in the meeting, as the club did not have exclusive control over cricket in India. But the club had the blessings of Lord Harris, who was Chairman of the ICC at the time. A significant outcome of the meeting was the MCC's decision to send a team to India in 1926-27. Arthur Gilligan, who had captained England in the 1924-25 Ashes, was assigned the captaincy of the team.
The match between the visitors and the Hindus at the Bombay Gymkhana was made memorable by the man who had hit a six on his first-class debut in 1916.
C.K. Nayudu blasted thirteen boundaries and eleven sixes on the way to 153. His century took him only hundred minutes to complete, and left the spectators delirious. Prof. D.B. Deodhar's 148 for 'All-India' in an earlier game, as also the showing of cricketers like J.G. Navle, Wazir Ali and Col. Mistry, made a huge impression on the visiting captain. Gilligan was convinced that India was ready for Test cricket.
By then, not only was cricket being played all over the subcontinent by the locals, but it had also scaled unforeseen heights of popularity. An annual Presidency match between the Europeans and Indians had been instituted in Chennai in 1915. It was played during the Pongal festivities. Sind, Calcutta, Lahore, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Kanpur were among the other leading cricket centres on the subcontinent. The Maharaja of Patiala supervised the creation of cricket arenas in Patiala and Chail, where he arranged for coaches from overseas to train junior cricketers.
Gilligan was one of the active participants in a meeting in Delhi in February 1927. The Maharaja of Patiala, a British businessman named Grant Govan, and Anthony De Mello were the other attendees. Gilligan expressed his praise of Indian cricket, and promised to press for India's inclusion in the ICC, if all the promoters of cricket in the land came together to establish a single controlling body.
Govan, Patiala and De Mello in turn assured Gilligan that they would do their bit. They convened a meeting in Delhi on 21st November 1927,which was attended by around forty-five delegates. These comprised cricket representatives from Sind, Punjab, Patiala, Delhi, the United Provinces, Rajputana, Alwar, Bhopal, Gwalior, Baroda, Kathiawar and Central India. There was a consensus that a Board of Cricket Control was essential to ensure the following:
Advance and control the game of cricket throughout India
Arrange and control inter-territorial, foreign and other cricket matches.
Make arrangements incidental to visits of teams to India, and to manage and control All-India representatives playing within and outside India.
If necessary, to control and arrange all or any inter-territorial disputes.
To settle disputes or differences between Associations affiliated to the Board and appeals referred to it by any such Associations.
To adopt if desirable, all rules or amendments passed by the Marylebone Cricket Club.
Another meeting, held at the Bombay Gymkhana on 10th December 1927, ended with a unanimous decision to form a 'Provisional' Board of Control to represent cricket in India. The plan was for this 'Provisional' Board to cease to function as soon as eight territorial cricket associations were created. Representatives of the eight associations would then come together to constitute the Board.
Govan and De Mello visited England in 1928, where they made out a case on India's behalf in front of the ICC. Their deliberations were satisfactory, but it turned out that their efforts had not been complemented in their absence. In late 1928, only six associations - Southern Punjab Cricket Association, Cricket Association of Bengal, Assam Cricket Association, Madras Cricket Association and Northern India Cricket Association - had been formed.
The Provisional Board met in Mumbai in December 1928 during the Quadrangular tournament, to discuss the next course of action. It was at this meeting that Govan and De Mello prevailed upon the others to reconsider the decision taken at the previous year's meeting. They did not want India to miss out on the opportunity to host South Africa in 1929 and tour England in 1931!
Their persistence paid off. The Provisional Board was deemed to have finished its work, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India established. Govan was the first President, and De Mello the first Secretary. Five months later, the ICC admitted India as a Full Member.
There were those who favoured Delhi and Calcutta as likely bases of the board, but it was Bombay that finally won. The city's cricketing ethos and cosmopolitan nature was believed to have given it the edge
Political developments on the subcontinent put paid to the prospects of the series against South Africa and England. India had to wait till 1932 to become a Test-playing nation.
Govan and De Mello tried their best to convince Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji, nephew of 'Ranji,' to lead the Indian team to England in 1932. Not only was 'Duleep' a prince, but he was also a successful cricketer in his own right, having scored a century on his Test debut for England against Australia in 1930. But Duleep declined. It was later alleged that he had been asked to refuse by none other than his own uncle, who had given the impression of not being too interested in Indian cricket.
In the prevailing circumstances, the Maharaja of Patiala fancied his chances of becoming the leading figure in Indian cricket. But he had to contend with Lord Willingdon, the then Viceroy, who did not get along with him, and the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, who pulled off a coup in 1930-31 by inviting Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, two of England's best batsmen of the time, to play in India.
Patiala was initially flustered by Willingdon and Vizianagaram, but he regained his composure at the annual meeting of the BCCI in November 1931. He offered to host and finance the selection trials of the team that was to undertake the historic tour in 1932.
Prince Ghanshyamsinhji of Limbdi was appointed vice-captain of the squad that Patiala himself was designated to lead. However, Patiala withdrew, and the reins entrusted to the Maharaja of Porbandar.
On the eve of the inaugural Test, which was played at Lord's in 1932, both Porbandar and Limbdi pulled out, and Col. C.K. Nayudu, the premier cricketer in the squad, was awarded the honour of becoming India's first Test captain.
'Team India' underwent a 'baptism by fire' from 1932 to 1952 before opening its account in Test cricket. The fifth and final Test of the 1951-52 series against England at Chennai was won by an innings and eight runs. A year later, the Indian cricketers registered their first-ever series win against compatriots-turned-foreigners Pakistan.
India first won a Test series abroad in 1967-68, when the New Zealanders were beaten 3-1 on their own pitches. Three seasons later, the Indian team went several steps further, winning back-to-back series in the West Indies and England.
The country's unexpected triumph in the World Cup in 1983 emboldened the BCCI to bid for the 1987 World Cup along with its Pakistani counterpart. It was the first time anyone had even thought of staging the competition outside England. The bid was upheld by the ICC, and the neighbours went on to stage a hugely successful event, the doubts raised by cynics notwithstanding.
That one event showcased the organizational capabilities of the BCCI.
The rest is history.