Episode 111: An elephant never forgets India’s first Test victory in England

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In August 1971 Bella the elephant from Chessington Zoo travelled to the Oval to watch India’s historic first Test match victory in England.  Her story gives the title to the fascinating book, Elephant In The Stadium, by the historian Arunabha Sengupta. Around it he weaves not only the gripping cricket played in the series but also the major surrounding events, the political, social and cultural history of India’s relationship with Britain and its empire, and its enduring legacy. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.


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Arunabha describes the reception of the book. Among many accolades, it had drawn some unwelcome comment about its emphasis on colonialism. One critic had suggested that this topic did not belong in a cricket book and had in any case been exhausted. Not at all: Arunabha believes that the colonial experience, and its negative episodes, had been long neglected in Britain’s educational curriculum and have only recently been addressed. 2-4 minutes In support of this, he cites a remarkable inter-generational encounter with a British family: the father in his 40s had been genuinely unaware that India took part in the Second World War, the children were able to cite the Bengal famine. 4-6 minutes

He also analyses the persistent concentration in cricket history on England and Australia and their encounters over all other cricket, especially Asian cricket, and the predominance of English and Australian authors over Asian ones, who are still discouraged from writing about non-Asian countries. In his view, the mentality persists that Ashes Tests are the only ones which count. 24-32 minutes

Arunabha sets India’s series-winning Oval victory against two major political stories of 1971: the Heath government’s racially-motivated Immigration Bill and the incipient conflict between India and Pakistan in East Bengal. He suggests how these influenced Indian and Pakistani cricket fans in England (by chance Pakistan had toured in the first half of the year). 7-11 minutes He reveals, movingly, that the great Pakistani  Zaheer Abbas, had joined the Indian team celebrations at the invitation of his friend Abid Ali, the Indian all-rounder. So did Surrey’s Pakistani players, Intikhab Alam and Younis Ahmed. That winter, despite the outbreak of war, leading Indians and Pakistanis played together for the World XI in substitution for a cancelled South African tour. 49-50 minutes

He describes the fillip to India’s domestic morale from the victory and the previous series victory in the West Indies, and the efforts of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to harness this. 12-14 minutes

Ajit Wadekar, India’s touring captain, was the first to have no connexion with a princely family. Arunabha suggests that this was partly responsible for the very low media attention he and his team received, in contrast with his charismatic but unsuccessful predecessor, the Nawab of Pataudi. 15-22 minutes

With the encouragement of a new kind of manager, Colonel Adikhari, Wadekar and his team abandoned the deference of many of their predecessors.33-36 minutes  One of Adikhari’s achievements, much appreciated by the team, was to secure an increase in their daily allowance to £3, and better accommodation. The £1 daily allowance on the previous tour in 1967 had left players starving and cold. 48 minutes

In selection, Adikhari and Wadekar made two big decisions, the choice of Venkataraghavan as off-spinner in place of Prasanna, and the recall of Engineer as wicketkeeper-batsman. 37-41 minutes In 1974 Engineer became the last Parsee to play for India, a sad commentary on the community which had pioneered cricket in India. Arunabha comments on the changed religious and political environment of Indian cricket since the five-faith teams of the 1960s, and hails Virat Kohli’s recent brave stand by India’s current Muslim players. 42-46 minutes

Finally, Arunabha profiles Bella the elephant, and explains the religious and political significance of her appearance at the Oval. 51-54 minutes

Elephant In The Stadium is published by Pitch Publishing.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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