India and South Africa have just concluded a five-match one-day series, a part of the 'Gandhi-Mandela Series'. Next week, they will commence the first of four Tests for the trophy of this series.
When, back in August, this new series was announced, a friend said it was a case of small men wishing to look less small by associating themselves with two great, iconic leaders. The sarcasm was justified; for in terms of character and credibility the sporting administrators of India and South Africa are worlds removed from Gandhi and Mandela.
But there may be other reasons why the name of the series is inapt -and perhaps also inept. For Mohandas Gandhi had little interest in sport, and on occasion actively disparaged it. When, in July 1910, the white Jim Jeffries fought the black Jack Johnson for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, Gandhi wrote a sharp editorial in his newspaper, Indian Opinion. He was appalled by the massive interest in the contest, with young and old, rich and poor, officials and citizens, turning up to watch it. Some had travelled all the way to Reno (where the fight was held) from Europe. "What did they see?" asked Gandhi: "Two men hitting each other and displaying their brute strength. The people of America went mad over this show, and America is reckoned a very civilized country!"
In Gandhi's view, the boxing match in Reno was "the extreme limit of barbarism. However strong the bodies of Jeffries and Johnson, they may be reduced to wrecks in an instant. It is doubtful if the millions who had assembled at the show ever thought of this even in their dreams".
Later in 1910, a reader asked why Indian Opinion did not carry sporting news. Gandhi answered that if the journal was not so devoted to the cause of the Indian struggle in South Africa, they "would not be unprepared" to have a section on sport. Then he added: "But we ask our young friends whether sport should occupy so much of our time and attention as it does now. Indeed, those Indians who know what is going on around them, cannot afford to be in a sporting mood. Our forefathers did wonderfully well without the fashionable sport of today. Sport indulged in for the sake of developing the body is of some use. But we venture to suggest that agriculture, the inherited occupation of Indians - indeed of the human race - is better sport than football, cricket and all other games put together."
The Tamils in South Africa were passionate football players, and invited Gandhi to be a patron of their sporting clubs in Durban and Johannesburg. He accepted, out of affection (and admiration) for his Tamil friends. But this was done out of social obligation, not love of football per se. So far as I can tell, Gandhi did not spontaneously or voluntarily play or watch sports after he left school.
Gandhi returned to India for good in January 1915. In April of the same year, he wrote a letter to a Tamil colleague in South Africa, explaining why (in his view) sport was not, for him, an ideal form of physical exercise. "To me," remarked Gandhi, "a sound body means one which bends itself to the spirit and is always a ready instrument in its service. Such bodies are not made, in my opinion, on the football field. They are made on cornfields and farms. I would urge you to think this over and you will find innumerable illustrations to prove my statement. Our colonial-born Indians are carried away with this football and cricket mania. These games may have their place under certain circumstances. But I feel sure that for us, who are just now so fallen, they have no room. Why do we not take the simple fact into consideration that the vast majority of mankind who are vigorous in body and mind are simple agriculturists, that they are strangers to these games, and they are the salt of the earth? Without them your and my existence would be an impossibility, whereas you and I are totally unnecessary for their well-being."
A year later, in an article on education published in a Gujarati magazine, Gandhi once more deplored this cricket and football mania, writing: "The idea that, if our boys and youths do not have football, cricket and other games, their life should become too drab is completely erroneous. The sons of our peasants never get a chance to play cricket, but there is no dearth of joy or innocent zest in their life."
Meanwhile, disregarding Gandhi, young Indians took to cricket, football, and other modern sports. In 1928 an Indian hockey team competed in the Olympics for the first time, and won the gold medal. Three years later, one C.E. Newham of the Indian Hockey Federation asked Gandhi for a message of support for a brochure being prepared for the 1932 Olympics. Gandhi said it would not be possible, noting: "You can have no knowledge of my amazing dullness and ignorance. You will be surprised to know that I do not know what really the game of hockey is... I have never, to my recollection, watched any game either in England, South Africa or in India." Then he added: "I have never attended cricket matches and only once took a bat and a cricket ball in my hands and that was under compulsion from the head master of the High School where I was studying, and this was 45 years ago. This confession does not in any shape or form mean that I am opposed to games, only I have never been able to interest myself in them."
Reading through the 90-odd volumes of Gandhi's Collected Works, I came across only two references to sport that were not disparaging. In December 1932, as part of the observance of an 'anti-untouchability day', Gandhi advised that "games, sports and parties should be held by mixed gatherings of Harijans and caste-Hindu children". Another comment somewhat sympathetic to sport was offered in March 1937. This was when he met an Egyptian delegation who told him that "our youths should go to India and yours should come to Egypt as sportsmen". Gandhi replied: "Not only may we have an exchange and a mixing together in the field of sport but we should also have it in the field of education."
The Bombay politician and lawyer, K.F. Nariman, once referred to Gandhi as "the least sportive Saint". Nariman was himself a keen lover of cricket. So were some other nationalists, among them Gandhi's own close colleague, C. Rajagopalachari. Among other well-known Congressmen, Nehru was moderately fond of cricket, Patel indifferent. But none except Gandhi were so sceptical of the values and uses of the modern sports of cricket, hockey and football.
I know Nelson Mandela's life and writings far less well. But it does seem that he himself fell on the Nariman rather than Gandhi side of the divide. He was a boxer in his youth. Once, when a friend came to visit him in Robben Island, Mandela asked: "Is Don Bradman still alive?" After he was released, and became the first president of a democratic South Africa, Mandela supported the Afrikaner-dominated Springbok rugby team, whose victory in the 1995 World Cup is said to have aided in the process of racial and national reconciliation. (The story is well told in John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, and less well told in Invictus, the film based on the book).
It is hardly likely that the mandarins of the Board of Control for Cricket in India know either of Mandela's interest in sport or of Gandhi's supreme disregard of sport. They just wanted to have some of the glow of those hallowed names rub off on them. As a Gandhi scholar who loves cricket myself, I look forward to the Test matches, but wish that the series that Kohli's men and Amla's men shall soon play had been called something else. It should really have been named the Kallis-Tendulkar Series, to honour two sublimely gifted players, who have inspired and enthralled cricket fans in India, South Africa, and beyond.