It was sometime in the mid 1880s. Eden Gardens was around 20 years old and hosting a match between Calcutta Cricket Club (CCC), the then occupants of the ground, and Town Club. Representing the latter, one Narendranath Datta took seven wickets. He did not pursue cricket, but went on to become a global figure known by another name: Swami Vivekananda.
While not much more is known about the multifaceted monk’s dalliance with bat and ball, it is documented that he was a member of Town Club and an ardent participant in physical activities. He played football and encouraged friends to exercise. Reference of this dynamic ambassador of humanity and ethos of the East may appear farfetched while writing on the early days and institutions of Calcutta (Kolkata since 2001) cricket. But it is relevant, considering that the teams involved present a snapshot of the sociopolitical background of sports at that time, in what was India’s capital till 1911.
CCC and Town Club brought up the cricketing North and South poles of the metropolis. Founded in 1792 by the British, the former is the oldest cricket club outside Great Britain. It was a symbol of the rulers and represented by them. Town Club was established in 1884 by Bengalis. Among them was Saradaranjan Ray, an eminent mathematics professor.
Active in organising cricket and an able player, he was the elder brother of Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore. There was involvement of people from different sections of the society. Nationalistic feelings were in the air and a young Vivekananda was one among the hordes that were fired up by the urge to take on the mighty in their own games.
This energy needed outlets, and the sprouting of clubs at the turn of the century provided that. By 1920, at least 50 were up and running. Most of them had wooden structures locally referred to as “tents”, and they had been built on small plots over the vast Maidan stretch in the heart of city, where permanent constructions are prohibited.
The likes of CCC, Calcutta Rangers, Dalhousie AC and others were formed and represented by the British for a long time. Town Club, Aryan Club, Kumartuli Institute, Sporting Union and Bengal Gymkhana belonged to Bengalis. Decades before Mohun Bagan (established in 1889) and East Bengal (1920) started forming cricket teams seriously, these clubs made the game popular and played their part in creating the Maidan ecosystem of sport, which has stood the test of time.
Early Test players from West Bengal were products of these clubs. Most of them continue to operate out of the same wooden “tents” and participate in the local league. Their eminence has diminished but they are still important entities, as voters of Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB).
“There were other things that brought the young men together. Not just the game of batting, bowling and fielding. Attraction of the apparel and gears, novelty of the gentleman’s game in whites... And since these gatherings involved a lot of Bengalis, food, of course. It was common to hear, ‘Make sure you don’t miss that match. They’re serving a good lunch’,” laughs Raju Mukherji, a former Bengal captain, and the author of Eden Gardens: Legend & Romance.It’s a brief history of the stadium, with notes on the early days of cricket in West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam and Tripura. Mention of Swami Vivekananda’s seven-for is found in this book, where the writer refers to a vernacular publication.
“On a serious note, the urge to prove that we are as good as the British in sports was very strong. Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory by beating an English side in the final was a big impetus, but not the first one. In the 1890s, Sovabazar Club had defeated an English football team. There was a surge in physical activities like bodybuilding, gymnastics and wrestling. Cricket saw a tendency to bowl fast. Early heroes of Bengal cricket were those who did that,” says Mukherji.Of the first five Test players from the state — Probir Sen, Sarobindu Nath (Shute) Banerjee, Sudangsu (Montu) Banerjee, Nirode Chowdhury and Pankaj Roy — the three in the middle were bowlers with long run-ups.
Former Bengal skipper Mukherji, whose previous book Cricket in India: Origin and Heroes is an informative appreciation of players from different eras, reckons that after British patronage and support of the Indian rulers of small states, these clubs were the third flag-bearers of Maidan cricket.
“They were the ones who nurtured cricketers. The history of Calcutta cricket is linked to the history of these clubs. Aryan, Town, Bengal Gymkhana, along with CCC, played leading roles, to name a few. The popular clubs with mass following turned their attention to cricket much later. Some stalwarts of Bengal cricket were products of these clubs, which had some dedicated coaches.”Oomesh Majumdar (1875-1929), better known as Sir Dukhiram, is a major name in this regard. Famous mainly for contributing to football, this founder member of Aryan Club also groomed prominent cricketers.
Occupying a quiet corner at the Maidan and not far away from the hustle of the happening Park Street, every inch of Town Club looks 135 years old, if not more. After ages in the wilderness, its cricket team has of late been among the top few in the CAB league. But in appearance, the structure is like many of its peers: showing signs of financial ill health.
An office room is just about in working condition. The rest is mostly unkempt. Parts covered in weeds, cobwebs and junk, this is a microcosm of the world that several clubs find themselves in. Maintaining two teams — they are also constituents of the state’s football body — is impossible with the grants they receive. Their legacy long gone, they are dependent on largesse of a few individuals for existence these days.
“I’ don’t know why I’m doing this,” says Debabrata Das, the secretary of Town Club. He says that over the last few years, he has been spending around Rs 25 lakh per annum on cricket. “CAB’s grant of around Rs 4 lakh is spent on football. I run a business, and half of what I earn is spent on this. Before I took charge, the team was fighting relegation. Now we are title contenders. But we all know that this model is not sustainable,” adds the former club-level opener, who also heads CAB’s grounds committee. Mohammed Shami played for Town Club for a few seasons after moving over from Uttar Pradesh.
That sums up the story of the institutions responsible for cricket’s popularity in the city of Eden Gardens. Bengal Gymkhana has long shut down. Aryan Club had its tent refurbished recently, but its team is nowhere in the reckoning. Kumartuli owns a three-storied building in a part of the city known by the same name, which is famous for the Durga idols made there. For them too, putting together teams and avoiding relegation are annual struggles.
Approximately half of the “tents” at the Maidan mirror Town Club’s state. Barring Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — who get sponsorships due to their fan following — the rest survive on unorganised patronage. Those that get individuals willing to spend flicker for a while, and it’s back to square one when the source dries up. “The grant we receive helps, but by and large we survive on donations. We don’t know what tomorrow holds,” says Kumartuli secretary Saradindu Pal, who has held this position in CAB in the past.Once the leading lights of Calcutta cricket, these clubs are now at the mercy of time.