‘It’s a special place’ – the 101-year history of the Indian Gymkhana cricket club | Daily News

‘It’s a special place’ – the 101-year history of the Indian Gymkhana cricket club

Illustrious figures from the club’s history.
Illustrious figures from the club’s history.

Everyone at the table is laughing. Naresh Patel, the treasurer at the Indian Gymkhana Club in Osterley, west London, is recalling the time that they went, en masse, to an exhibition match at Lord’s in honour of Princess Diana. The two all-star teams included Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest batsmen of all time for the West Indies and India respectively, and Sri Lankan legend Aravinda de Silva, who once played on the Indian Gymkhana team at the age of 17. De Silva scored a dashing, run-a-ball 82, and Patel’s wife could not contain her excitement. She stood up in her seat, waved her arms in the air, and shouted: “My son! My son!” Once you’ve played for the club, you’re very much part of the family.

At the table sit a couple of generations of club members, eating lentil dal and roti. An April sun shines through the pavilion, warming their faces, if not the air outside. Patel – whom everyone calls uncle – has made this place his second home for more than 50 years. Alongside him is Dhiru Gosai, who captained the team back in the 1980s. Both men remember the season De Silva spent here as a 17-year-old, and the wily professional (former Australian captain Kim Hughes) who tried to poach the young Sri Lankan for Dundee cricket club when they played against them. De Silva loyally turned him down.

But then this is no ordinary cricket club. Indian Gymkhana opened in 1916 and became a magnet for cricket lovers throughout the Asian diaspora. “It is unique,” says Gosai, who, like his friend Patel, came to Britain from Uganda in the 1960s. “We have Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Muslims, Christians and Hindus here.” Until the more recent proliferation of Asian cricket clubs in the UK, players would travel from Essex, Kent and Bedfordshire to get a game here, and it is a place where dozens of languages – including Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu – are still heard.

Many young Indian players travelling to Britain – including future legends Ajay Jadeja, who played nearly 200 one-day internationals, and captain-to-be Sourav Ganguly – have been warmly welcomed into the club’s convivial atmosphere. But it’s not only Indian players who have trodden the turf. International teams from Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies have played tour games against the club.

Clive Lloyd, who captained the West Indies’ world-beating team of the 1970s brought his side here in 1973, and Indian Gymkhana bowled them out for an impressive 186 – only to be skittled by the visitors’ fearsome bowling attack for less than 100.

Until the late 20th century, India usually played the opening fixture of their England tours here – the 1983 team even honoured a commitment to play against the club the very day after claiming the World Cup, although they did turn up three hours late (and possibly a little tired).

Gosai himself once had Sunil Gavaskar – one of the greatest opening batsmen in history – caught on the boundary.

“We would play to crowds of a couple of thousand when India toured,” he says, pointing out of the window. “We used to have three cricket grounds.” These days, there is just the one: a groundsman is driving a mower up and down it in preparation for their first game of the season. One of the other grounds has become an astroturf hockey pitch in front of the veranda – the club has a proud hockey tradition – and the third was sold off to boost funds. Even the Indian Gymkhana cannot survive on its history alone.

But what a history it is. The club’s first first season was 1917. The players, mostly wealthy sons of the Raj, leased a ground in Acton at the cost of £60 for the summer, so they could indulge their passion for the game. The club finished their debut season with 13 wins and only six defeats – and such was their sphere of influence that Marylebone Cricket Club mandarin Lord Hawke even organised a fixture against the touring Australian side at their hallowed London ground, Lord’s (it ended in a draw).

In 1922, thanks to donations from some of the most illustrious families in India, including the maharajas of Patiala, Kapurthala, Jhalawar and Cooch Behar, Indian Gymkhana officially opened its own 15-acre site in Osterley. Mansur Ali Khan – always known by his princely title, the Nawab of Pataudi – captained the side when he wasn’t playing Test matches for England or India (he remains the only man to have played for both Test sides) and the first female (non-playing) members, inducted in 1925, included the Maharani (aka princess of) Cooch Behar. “The car park used to be full of Rolls Royces and Bentleys,” says Gosai. “I don’t think working-class people like me would have been allowed to play.”

These days the club’s first and second XI play in the second division of the Middlesex league. They did manage to get promoted to the county premier league in 2014, but went straight back down again the following year.

Gosai and Patel miss the old social traditions of club cricket, such as the home captain standing the opposition captain a gin and tonic, and post-match revels running into the night, with singing around the piano. But there is still plenty of activity: the bar is a local favourite, drawing a packed crowd for its delicious curries. A banqueting suite downstairs is in constant demand for parties and weddings.

Right now, however, it’s hosting a couple of dozen over-50s, sitting on yoga mats, gently stretching. Mrs Patel began running exercise classes for older people here with the help of a council grant 13 years ago, and she now has more than 200 people signed up. “We’re all very close to each other here,” she says. “The children grew up here and now we’re seeing those children’s children do the same. We might fight occasionally, but that’s just like a family too.”

Tradition and modernity have long been happy bedfellows here. The Indian Gymkhana club has been both a playground of the elite and a refuge for those fleeing persecution. It has welcomed prime ministers, sporting megastars, and schoolboys needing a good feed. It has broken race barriers, and yet still challenges itself on diversity issues, hoping to open up the club and its community to more players and families from non-Asian backgrounds.

Women’s cricket is relatively new to the club – the first women’s team was established five years ago – but it is already a serious proposition. The current coaches are a former India women’s captain, and a former wicketkeeper for Pakistan. At the table, eating dal, sits Sonia, now in her 30s. She grew up at the club, despite never playing cricket – her father is a longstanding member, and the family spent their weekends here – and remembers running around the field and playing games with her friends. They’re still her friends today. “It’s a really special place,” she says. “We were so lucky to have everyone here as family.” Mr Patel ran into Aravinda de Silva in Harrow not long ago. He still called him uncle. - theguardian



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