Yes, Mohammed Shami. A bright young thing who’s burst on to the Indian cricket scene very recently, seven years after moving into the Big City that is Calcutta. I’d never heard of him, so when he played a starring role in the Eden Gardens Test against the West Indies a few days ago, I tried to find out more about him. And came across this article, Shami’s Rise from Small-Time Club to Country.
As I read the story, long-forgotten memories stirred. The Dalhousie Athletic Club. A bizarre relic of a bizarre time. Founded in 1880, eight years before the Football League was established; three years after the first Test match, bang in the middle of the birth of Test cricket; less than a decade after the first rugby international. 1880, the year that the first national bowling association was formed. A time when people still referred to the burgeoning world of team sports as “athletics”.
The Dalhousie Athletic Club. Formed in a city that already boasted the world’s first golf club outside the United Kingdom: The Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Founded in 1829, it is actually the world’s second-oldest outside Scotland, after Royal Blackheath.
The Dalhousie Athletic Club. Founded in 1880, in a city that already had the Calcutta Cricket Club (1792) and the Calcutta Football Club (1872-77, then reformed 1884) by then; those clubs were soon to merge to become the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club. As the Calcutta Football Club, they instituted the Calcutta Cup in 1878, the trophy that England and Scotland still play for.
The Dalhousie Athletic Club. Barely a mile from the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, India’s oldest racecourse, founded before Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne.
Hearing all that, you would think that the Dalhousie Athletic Club would be an imposing Victorian edifice with elegant driveways and red carpets and uniformed commissionaires.
I first went there in 1966. And it looked a lot like the photograph above. A hut. With some carefully tended bushes and lawn nearby, surrounded by larger swathes of grassland. [I confess that I am not sure whether the photograph above is of the DAC. But it reflects my memories of the place faithfully, so at worst it is a proxy for the fading truth in my head].
It was a very strange place. There was an extremely well tended lawn in front of the hut, if you imagine the front to be where you see the collapsible doors above. And on that lawn people appeared to be straining quite hard while apparently doing very little. They wore strange clothes, white without being flannels, pressed to perfection, yet not a tie in sight. And they wore straw hats. They said very little as they sent big black balls to try and hit a small ball. And they kept missing, or so it seemed.
I was nine years old, and watching my first game of bowls.
It was hot, and soon I wanted to go inside, but it was a bar so I wasn’t allowed in. On the other hand it wasn’t really a building, just a hut with wooden and canvas sides and a corrugated metal roof, all painted in the green camouflage that all buildings on the “maidan” sported in those days. And the collapsible gates weren’t really doors (I may be wrong, but what I remember didn’t even have those gates, just canvas sheeting, as you would see in a tent). In the space that passed for the door, there’d be a number of tables and chairs set out, and children were allowed to sit there. Provided they were still and said nothing. [There were some tennis courts that belonged to the club, a little further away; the intervening space was where you were allowed to run and shout and chase each other and even play rudimentary ball games].
If you were quiet and good, then, occasionally, you could sit at the bar on a high stool, even as a child. In those days serious drinking didn’t begin there until the sun was down.
The first evening I was there was remarkable, I felt I was in a different country. A full fifteen years or so before India had television, we were able to watch English first division football matches. I suspect they were Pathe newsreels.
So I watched people like George Best and Denis Law and Bobby Charlton (Yes, Manchester United seemed to have the same dominance of media then as it has now); teams like Wolves and Leicester appeared often. I have no idea what the time lag between the game and its DAC showing was, but everyone in the club seemed to be excited, no sign of knowing what the actual results were.
What was really bizarre was that people would actually take part in the pools. Pools coupons, religiously filled in, religiously collected, religiously checked. I have no idea how this worked. A parallel system? A time-delayed process, with the forms filled in at the proper time, and then “checked” when the newsreels arrived? Perhaps even a full Sting-like scam week after week? Who knows? I was too young to ask or even truly understand what was going on: but the forms existed, they were filled in, they were paid for and they were checked with shouts and groans.
As I write this, I’m sipping an unusual drink. A Coca-Cola. With lots of ice. Topped off with a dash of Lime Cordial. One of my favourite drinks. Been a favourite for years. Ever since I had it for the first time.
At the Dalhousie Athletic Club, in 1966. [Derek O’Brien, if you read this, ask your father and his contemporaries what they remember of the place. And if they called it the DAC, because that’s how I remember it. Distinct and different from the Maidan Club, an altogether different beast]