In March 1937, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) played three matches in New Zealand after an extensive tour of Australia. Either side of playing New Zealand at the Basin Reserve, the visitors played combined provincial teams: Canterbury and Otago in Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington at Eden Park. The brief tour came off the back of an extensive one in 1935-36. That visit had placed such a heavy financial burden on the New Zealand Cricket Council they declared it would be difficult to host any teams in the near future.
The 1937 tour came about because of two factors, one of which was the MCC’s own genuine regret at their previous visit causing such a loss. But the more significant element in so hastily arranging the late-summer visit was the cancellation of another tour. This is the story of the tour that never was: India to New Zealand, 1936-37.
India, so often at the top of world cricket in the modern era, became the sixth Test playing nation in 1932. Before then, the history of Indian cricket is largely defined by two names: Ranji and Duleep.
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji was born in the state of Nawanagar in 1872. Although his father was a farmer, he was descended from the state’s ruling family and, after a complex first 35 years involving adoption and claims of poisoning, Ranji would become Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar in 1907. In the years leading up to taking that title, Ranji made a name for himself on the cricket field. Starting with Cambridge University before moving on to Sussex and England, Ranji left a legacy in cricket which still places him among the game’s great batsmen and innovators.
Ranji’s nephew, Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji, followed in his uncle’s footsteps through Cambridge, Sussex, and on to Test cricket with England. With a Test average of 58.52, Duleep’s batting talent ranks alongside his uncle’s. However, Duleep’s cricket story was cut short by illness and his career lasted just 12 Tests, concluding with an innings of 63 against New Zealand at Eden Park, 1931. After he returned to India from England in 1934 he became committed to the development of cricket there – staunchly advocating the Ranji Trophy (named for his uncle) as the country’s premier cricket tournament.
In late 1935, Duleepsinhji was back in England where he encountered Arthur Sims. At the time, Sims was the biggest advocate New Zealand had in England, serving as our representative on the Imperial Cricket Conference and often assisting in funding tours. Between them the pair hatched a plan to have an Indian side visit New Zealand, with the tour fully funded by Duleep’s brother, the new Jam Saheb of Nawanagar.
By February 1936, Arthur Donnelly of the New Zealand Cricket Council (NZCC) had received word of the proposed tour from both Sims and Duleepsinhji and set about making the necessary arrangements. The NZCC moved quickly to establish a schedule, their enthusiasm no doubt borne out of the unforeseen benefit of a fully-funded touring side landing in their lap. Although Donnelly promoted a range of matches against representative sides, his initial response included as much reference to sightseeing as it did cricket. Tourism in 1930s New Zealand wasn’t too different from today: Donnelly suggested visits to Rotorua, Mt Cook, the Southern Lakes (Queenstown), and a spot of deep sea fishing north of Auckland.
The following month saw Sims provide more details to Donnelly, including confirmation that the Indian side would travel on the Strathaird, leaving Bombay on November 5 1936. He again reinforced that the Jam Saheb would pay for the tour, with any profits being split evenly. Sims was of the opinion that it was unlikely he would accept any share of profits and noted that the “main thing will be to give him and good time and […] impress on the Government the political benefits of such tours”. This last point was particularly important to Sims: each subsequent letter from him would place further emphasis on the need for the Government to be involved in communications with the Jam Saheb. In May 1936, both Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage and Governor-General George Monckton-Arundell sent letters to India welcoming the visit of the Jam Saheb.
Arthur Sims had built up his wealth in Australia and New Zealand and was now using it to his advantage in England. To the great benefit of the NZCC this often resulted in Sim using his own resources to support cricket here. He was also well-travelled and moved in high-powered social circles, giving him a better understanding of the Jam Saheb’s world than any members of the NZCC could appreciate. Both of these factors combined in his recommendations to Donnelly where he implored him to extend all manner of courtesy and ceremony to their visitors, and went so far as to offer his own funds to ensure the cricket associations could afford them these luxuries.
The announcement of the tour had seen an influx of letters arriving at the NZCC from minor associations requesting matches against the tourists. While the lengthy schedule meant that games would be played around the country, some sides missed out. The small association of Piako in Waikato was one of the most vocal in requesting a match, banking on the credit they earned when they stepped in to host the MCC after the Hamilton Association withdrew. The Piako Cricket Association secretary, LH Little, wrote an impassioned three-page letter to Donnelly, dropping as many names as he could and referring to the pair attending the same school for a time – Donnelly didn’t remember him. Unfortunately, it was to no avail as Piako missed out on a fixture in the fourteen-match schedule. In the end, however, Piako didn’t lose out on anything.
The first sign that anything was awry with the planning for the tour came in a May 1936 letter from Sims to Donnelly. After writing that the deposit for their passage had been covered, Sims stated “I will not feel quite safe until they are actually on the boat.” Pressure was mounting in India for the Jam Saheb to stay in the country during a time of severe political unrest, although Sims was still, largely, confident in the tour going ahead. His confidence wasn’t ill-conceived: Duleep was starting the selection process and wrote of the Jam Saheb sending his team “to Bombay for three weeks to play a few matches … before the final selection will be made”.
The NZCC obviously had no fear of the tour being cancelled as, in August, they confirmed the schedule and advised the successful associations of the arrangements to be made for their match against the Jam Saheb’s side. By this time, any match against a New Zealand representative had been removed from the schedule with North and South Island selections providing the highest level of competition. It is unclear why no internationals were scheduled although it’s likely that politics would have made it difficult for the tour to be signed off as official. Another factor may have been Duleep’s position within Indian cricket. When planning for the tour began, Duleep was a member of the Indian Cricket Board’s Selection Committee but, by the time the schedule was finalised for New Zealand, he had resigned that post.
In India, the pressure being put on the Jam Saheb was intensifying. The failure of the monsoon had led to drought and there were questions as to why he was spending money on a cricket tour instead of supporting his people. He was certainly under great scrutiny from the media – repeatedly referred to in a later letter from Duleep as the “gutter press”. In early September 1936, Donnelly received a telegram from Jamnagar announcing that the Jam Saheb had bowed to the pressure and would no longer be making the trip to New Zealand. In spite of that, he put the decision to continue the cricket tour in the hands of the NZCC. Donnelly immediately replied that the team were still “gladly welcome” but that, if there are “difficulties [at] your end do not hesitate to cancel.” Days later Duleepsinhji wrote to Donnelly: “I regret very much and also feel it very much that the tour had to be cancelled on our account”.
In his letter cancelling the tour, Duleep wrote that 14 players had already been selected. Although he didn’t name the players, a Nawanagar side played a series of matches in October 1936, perhaps giving us some insight into who may have been in the tour party. That Nawanagar side featured two legends of Indian cricket in Vijay Merchant and Vinoo Mankad, among other Test players. By the time India finally visited New Zealand for the first time in 1968, generations of cricketers like Merchant and Mankad had come and gone. Had the 1936 tour gone ahead who knows what friendships and rivalries might have emerged between the countries. Duleepsinhji would eventually get back to New Zealand, however, after being appointed High Commissioner for India in Australia and New Zealand in 1949.
The historic tour was to be nothing more than a pile of letters in an archive box, held by New Zealand Cricket until it came to the New Zealand Cricket Museum this year. Click here for more details on the archives of the cancelled India to NZ tour, 1936-37.