Will M S Dhoni serve with his Territorial Army (TA) battalion stationed in the Kashmir Valley or will he just train with them? That is a significant difference because serving in an operational deployment carries its own risks which training — however grueling it may be — does not have. As someone bestowed with the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel after India’s world cup win in 2011, Dhoni doesn’t need to do either. Other professionals who join the TA after a selection process often get waivers for their annual attachment with the battalion for training.
Cricket and military training, though, have a linkage. The Pakistan cricket team trained at the country’s military academy before the 2016 England tour and the players were doing push-ups after reaching a landmark, the way rookie military recruits celebrate their success. Pakistani cricket and its army have quite a connection — and we are not referring to Imran Khan being “selected” as PM by its army last year — which can be seen by a cursory search on YouTube of Wasim Akram acing a military field obstacle course.
But these training were for the purpose of improving their chosen game of cricket. They weren’t for operational deployment, for which Dhoni has already shown his penchant by completing five parachute jumps. It points to a level of interest and commitment which has not been witnessed among any of the other sportsmen who were given an honorary rank. Sachin Tendulkar is a Group Captain in the IAF and is present in uniform on most Air Force Day parades, sitting in the front row, and has taken a joy ride in a fighter jet, but his linkage ends there.
The connection between cricket and military in India has been rather tenuous so far. The only name that comes to mind is of Colonel C K Nayudu, who was given the rank as a honour in the Holkar’s army for being an outstanding cricketer. Then there was Lt Colonel Hemu Adhikari, an army officer whose military career doesn’t show any active combat experience in uniform. Adhikari captained India in one Test against the West Indies, the fourth captain in a five-match series, and he agreed to take the responsibility because of a military order.
When the selectors approached him, Adhikari was posted at Dharamshala and he initially refused to lead India in the Test; he even turned down his wife’s request. He recalled: “My chief sent me a message asking me to come and report to him immediately. He told me the same thing: India needs you. Your country is bigger than the individual. Just go and play and let the public feel what wrong the Board has done to you.”
But in the active wars fought by India since Independence, there have perhaps been no Test cricketers who have participated. Besides Adhikari, five other military personnel played Test cricket for India: Chandrasekhar Gadkari, Narain Swamy, Raman Surendranath, Apoorva Sengupta, and Venatappa Muddiah. Of these, Sengupta played only a solitary Test but retired as a three-star general from the armoured corps.
Even though cricket between India and Pakistan has often been compared to war, there was a time when both players were in the same team as the two countries were at war. In his memoirs, Sunil Gavaskar has recounted that some of the Indian and Pakistani players were playing for the Rest of the World XI in Australia during the 1971 War and were still close to each other as they followed the news, worried about the fate of their families and hometowns.
Gavaskar and Tendulkar may not have joined military service but another batting great, Don Bradman did join the Australian Air Force in June 1940. Subsequently shifted to Australian Army, he was commissioned as a lieutenant, with the task of Physical Training Officer. But he was diagnosed with fibrositis of the back and discharged from service in June 1941. For a year, the world’s greatest batsman was known as Lieutenant Bradman.
Len Hutton, who had joined as a sergeant instructor, sustained serious injury when he fell in gymnasium in York on military service. An operation and bone grafts left his left-arm shorter and weaker than his right but he still piled on the runs after the war. But not everyone was as fortunate as the legendary English cricketer. Nigel McCrery’s The Coming Storm: Test and First-Class Cricketers Killed in World War Two provides details of 12 test cricketers — five Englishmen, two South Africans, one Australian and one New Zealander — who perished in the Second World War along with 130 other first class cricketers. The most famous among them was the great Hedley Verity who died in gunfire in Caserta, Italy in 1943 as he led his troops as an army captain in capturing a building. Other Test cricketers who lost their lives were Dooley Briscoe and Arthur Langton of South Africa, Maurice Turnbull, George Macaulay, Ken Farnes and Geoffrey Legge of England, Ross Gregory of Australia and Sonny Moloney of New Zealand.
Most of these cricketers were recruited for the regular service as the countries needed all able-bodied men to ward off the German-Japanese challenge. But like Dhoni now, Denis Compton was with TA during the war and was posted in Mhow in central India. He ended up scoring 249 not out for Holkar vs Bombay in the final of the Ranji Trophy in 1944-45, with India being the only country where first-class cricket continued to be played during the Second World War.
If Dhoni goes on to serve in an operational area and see real combat with the army, his experience would probably mirror that of Australian Keith Miller who became a fighter pilot. Answering a question from Michael Parkinson before one of the Victory Tests played in England immediately after the Second World War, he said, “Pressure? There is no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse.”