Episode 43: Kashmir – where cricket has become a political statement

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.

Kashmir contains some of the most beautiful settings for cricket in the world – but cricket there has been blighted for over seventy years by the political and military conflicts which were a legacy of the partition of India. It has become not just a game but a political statement, as is explained by a local journalist, author, historian and cricketer Gowhar Geelani, the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Gowhar explains the nineteenth-century history of Kashmir, when the entire territory, including the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir now under Pakistani control, was sold by the British to a ruler who is described in some references as Hindu and others as Sikh, over the heads of its predominantly Muslim population. Under the terms of the Treaty of Amritsar executed in March 1846, it was sold for 7.5 million Nanakshahee rupees to Gulab Singh Jamwal (1792-1857), who was bestowed with the title of Maharaja and became the founder of the royal Dogra dynasty. 5-7 minutes

He introduces Maharaja Pratap Singh, ruler from 1885 to 1925, a keen cricketer who played to his own rules. His Highness did not bowl or field and would be summoned by (then rare) telephone to bat and transported to the field of play in his Rolls-Royce. He would receive a ration of dollies and use them to complete a sparkling hundred. At a meeting with Ranjitsinhji (Ranjit Singh Ji), he was able to enjoy bragging rights because he had never been dismissed for a duck. 8-9 minutes

In spite of the Maharaja’s enthusiasm, organized cricket was slow in reaching Kashmir. Visiting teams did not go there to play cricket, although English amateurs were often invited there to shoot by the Maharaja (inappropriately, the usual target was duck.) Drawing on memories from an experienced Kashmiri cricketer, Gowhar traces locally organized cricket to 1957, ten years after Partition, when teams began to visit Indian Punjab, and in 1960-61 Jammu and Kashmir entered India’s domestic competition, the Ranji Trophy.  11-14 minutes Its early teams, drawn almost exclusively from the minority Hindu Pandit community, had no success but were gradually reinforced by Kashmiri Muslim players in the late 1970s: Gowhar especially mentions the hard-hitting Abdur Rauf, praised by his victim Bishen Bedi. Only twice has J&K cricket team qualified for the quarterfinals in Ranji Trophy and never gone beyond that. He cites the first Kashmiri cricketers to gain international honours: Vivek Razdan, from the Hindu Pandit community, for India, and the Muslim Tahir Naqqash for Pakistan, both opening bowlers. During the 1970s radio and then television coverage in Pakistan built a big following for Pakistan’s increasingly successful team, but Gowhar reveals that it was actually dangerous for Kashmiris under Indian control to watch or listen to them. 14-19 minutes

Kashmiri Muslims nonetheless expressed their support for Pakistan, or any of India’s opponents. He cites the first visit by an international team to Srinagar, a one-day match against the West Indies in 1983, where noisy fans displayed giant posters of Imran Khan in the surrounding maple trees. Sunil Gavaskar later wrote in Runs n Ruins that he had never encountered such hostility in India and Clive Lloyd said it was like playing at home. The match was ended prematurely by a crowd invasion (some dug up the pitch) and a storm, in which the West Indies were declared winners by ten wickets. In 1986, Kashmiri Muslims cheered Allan Border’s visiting Australians (winners by six wickets) in a match Gowhar remembers as a child of five or six. 19-23 minutes

Since then, there have been no international men’s visitors to Jammu and Kashmir, but the tradition continues for Kashmiri Muslims to support India’s visitors. England are currently the beneficiaries, and Gowhar describes the earnest debates among local Kashmiri Muslims about England’s selection and rotation policies, and the impact they have had on England’s chances of winning. Unsurprisingly, Moeen Ali, from a family of Kashmiri origins, has a strong following. 35-38 minutes

Gowhar powerfully conveys the impact of unresolved conflict on all the cricketers of Kashmir, the pressures caused by divided loyalties and the choices forced on talented cricketers to commit to one country’s cricket or another. The pressures have been aggravated by mismanagement, factionalism, corruption of scandals and patronage in cricket administration in Jammu and Kashmir. 24, 27-30 minutes  He profiles Parvez Rasool, the first Kashmiri Muslim to represent India (in a solitary one-day international) and also the first to win an IPL contract. Others like Rasik Salam and Abdul Samad have since followed him. Gowhar describes a pattern in which players are adopted as symbols of political progress for one year, and then replaced by others. 30-35 minutes

He relates the haphazard attempts to promote a Kashmiri cricketing identity, particularly in periods of thaw between India and Pakistan among Kashmiris overseas. The latest initiative is a Kashmiri Premier League, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He reveals the Kashmiri word for a “shooter” or “gugger,” which translates literally as the “mouse ball”. 42-45 minutes

Indian Kashmir is now under direct rule from the Modi government in New Delhi, which extinguished the remains of limited autonomy in August 2019 and snatched the statehood as well. Gowhar gives a bleak assessment of its heavy policing and military presence, its crackdown on normal civil liberties, and political expression, and its subduing of local media. The internet was shut down for eighteen months. Curfews and bans on meetings (and the use of cricket grounds for political rallies by government ministers) have made it harder and harder for local cricketers to play proper matches. But such is the passion for cricket in Kashmir that players are using any available space, including hilltops, a frozen lake and even a graveyard. In the absence of conventional outlets, playing cricket and choosing which team to support have become substitute forms of political expression. 47-50 minutes

A BBC briefing on Kashmir can be found here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10537286

Gowhar’s profile by the Frontline Defenders Organization can be found here  https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/gowhar-geelani

The literary event of the year is imminent: the publication of Wisden Cricketers Almanack.  Peter and Richard invite listeners to submit their nominations for the Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year to obornehellercricket@outlook.com. They will present the results in advance of Wisden’s.

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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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