Philip Barker

India’s cricketers have begun their four-match Test series against England, still feeling the warm glow of their exhilarating victory in Australia a fortnight ago.

A record run chase at the Gabba in Brisbane completed a remarkable recovery to lift the Border-Gavaskar trophy.

In the next few weeks they will hope to win another trophy, one first awarded 70 years ago.

It bears the name of  a man who was at the centre of Indian sport. Anthony Stanislaus de Mello was the first secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and later became its President. 

"For sheer cricket administration capability, confidence and enthusiasm, there was never anyone to equal de Mello," said star Indian batsman Vijay Merchant.

It was a view echoed by All India Radio commentator Berry Sarbadhikary.

"No one man has done more to put Indian cricket on the world map than he," said Sarbadhikary. "He was the chief architect of 'modern' Indian cricket."

India's series with England follows their remarkable triumph in Australia in January ©Getty Images
India's series with England follows their remarkable triumph in Australia in January ©Getty Images

In 1951, the year De Mello’s cricket trophy was introduced, he was also the driving force of the first Asian Games, held in New Delhi, which he considered "historic for sport in India, indeed for the sport of Asia, even for the whole world".

De Mello described himself as "a man full of ambition for the furtherance of his country’s sport". To some, though, he was seen as a "dictator".

As a young man, De Mello studied at Cambridge University. His time there helped inspire the colours adopted by Indian cricket .

"One evening we went through the permutations and combinations and decided on the blending at which we finally arrived," he said.

De Mello insisted with "sentimental significance" on light blue for Cambridge. There was also dark blue for Oxford and the third colour was gold as this was "representative of the Orient".

Although he did not play for the University, De Mello played first-class cricket in India.

His greatest day as a player was for the Rest of India against a star-studded team raised by Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patalia, a distinguished patron of sport who later relayed De Mello’s big moment.

"Anthony was brought on, and he beat Jack Hobbs three times in one over. His next over brought Jack’s wicket. When he was bowled, Hobbs went up to him shook hands and said, ‘that was one of the best I ever played against,'" Singh said.

Hobbs was known as "The Master" and scored more first-class centuries than any other player in cricket history.

De Mello's final bowling figures of 6-66 earned him the match ball.

In 1926, the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) toured India. After a discussion with the Maharaja, club President Raymond Eustace Grant Govan and MCC captain Arthur Gilligan, a distinguished Test player, it was suggested that India should form a Board of Control to administer the Game and also seek test status.

De Mello was delighted. "We felt that if a man so cricket wise as Gilligan considered Indian cricket had reached a stage where it could challenge the world we had definitely achieved something," he said.

The positive attitude in Indian sport was further encouraged by the restoration of hockey to the Olympic programme for the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

India won gold to begin a long period of Olympic dominance.

Before returning home, the team visited England. De Mello made his way to Kennington Oval in South London to watch England play against the West Indies at cricket.

"Here was a touring side from four comparatively small colonies in the Caribbean. They were playing the might of England in the very home of cricket. So the idea was born, If West Indies can do it, why can’t we?" De Mello said.

That December, at a meeting held in the Bombay Gymkhana, De Mello became secretary of the newly-formed BCCI and Grant Govan was named President.

The following summer, both attended the annual meeting of cricket powerbrokers at Lord’s.

In those days ,the letters ICC stood for Imperial Cricket Conference. The other Test playing nations, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies were, like India, part of the British Empire.

"We were so well received at Lord’s that it was almost as if they had been waiting eagerly for our revival," said De Mello.

Anthony De Mello was the driving force of the first Asian Games, held in New Delhi in 1951 ©Getty Images
Anthony De Mello was the driving force of the first Asian Games, held in New Delhi in 1951 ©Getty Images

The Indians were granted test status and in 1932, they played their first test match at Lord’s.

The following year, a new Cricket Club of India (CCI) took shape in Mumbai. This was founded after what the club later described as a "poignant episode" involving the Maharaja, who had visited Bombay Gymkhana "only to be informed that he could not sit among the Europeans who enjoyed a separate enclosure". He vowed "to create a facility where no such practice existed".

De Mello became secretary of this club, too.

In 1934, the BCCI met in the rarefied atmosphere of Simla in the foothills of the Himalaya. De Mello proposed a national Indian Championship and submitted a design for the trophy to be used. It was shaped like a Grecian urn, topped off by Father Time stooping over the stumps as at Lord’s. It was named the Ranji Trophy, after Prince Ranjitsinhji, a star batsman from India in the late 19th century.

In 1936 De Mello travelled to the Berlin Olympics. He stayed in the Hotel Adler, also used by the International Olympic Committee. "I enjoyed the most luxurious suite imaginable," he recalled.

Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess even put a silver Mercedes at his disposal. "I was driven on one occasion on a visit to the Indian contingent in the Olympic Village, accompanied by the Fuhrer’s charming friend Eva Braun," said De Mello.

While in Berlin, he also visited the impressive Olympic Stadium complex.

"There I was able to learn more about the requirements of the fully equipped sports stadium," he said.

He spearheaded the construction of the Brabourne Stadium. Named after Bombay Governor Lord Brabourne, it was completed in 1937 and remained the city’s major cricket venue until the early 1970s.

"How much the stadium had done for the prestige of India is impossible to measure," De Mello said later.

India was granted Test status in 1932 ©Getty Images
India was granted Test status in 1932 ©Getty Images

After the Second World War, India’s cricketers toured England as "All India" for a final time in 1946.

The following August, India and Pakistan became independent.

Indians had participated in the regional Asiatic Games before the war, but in 1947 International Olympic Committee member Guru Dutt Sondhi proposed a sports competition for the entire continent.

The idea was discussed during the 1948 London Olympics, and then in February 1949, officials met in Delhi where they resolved to establish the first Asian Games.

Meanwhile, De Mello had formed a National Sports Club of India.

"My experiences in watching the first post war Olympiad convinced me that if Indian athletes were to succeed, they must be given greatly improved facilities within their own land," he recalled.

Delhi was designated as host city, but lack of finance delayed stadium construction. Originally scheduled for March 1950, the Games were postponed first to November and finally to March 1951.

"There was no stadium, no cinder track, no equipment and no funds," said De Mello.

To compound difficulties, in April 1950, Sondhi resigned as Games Director. De Mello took over and used his influence as secretary to persuade the National Sporting Club and CCI to loan money to the project.

He struck a deal with Lillywhites, a London sporting goods company, for the loan of equipment earmarked for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

A special purification plant was installed at the swimming pool "which would give hundred percent immunity from any infection". Similar units had been supplied to Eton College and Windsor Castle.

The stadium was eventually built in 300 days and officially opened by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

New Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but India has not yet staged the Olympics ©Getty Images
New Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but India has not yet staged the Olympics ©Getty Images

De Mello’s good relations with Field Marshal Kodandera "Kipper" Cariappa, India’s senior military officer, helped with the provision of the Village. Cariappa "solved this huge problem by lending us two groups of army buildings either side of the stadium".

On the eve of the Games, De Mello announced: "The object we have undertaken is much bigger than a mere collection of sportsmen of different countries. It is an attempt at this vital juncture at maintaining peace in the world. We hope that the sportsmen who participate in the Games will carry a message of peace that Olympic Games stand for to their respective countries."

They opened with the lighting of a flame which had been lit at the historic Red Fort.

The Times of India also reported "a special cheer for the Japanese contingent returning to world sport after 12 long years".

Japan had been excluded from the 1948 Olympics because of their part in the war. The Japanese competitors excelled.

There was also a group from the People’s Republic of China. They did not take part in the sport, but De Mello greeted them and introduced them to Nehru.

Later they presented souvenirs to the competing teams and also gave a vase to De Mello’s National Sporting Club.

When the Games were over, Nehru offered his own tribute. "The success of the first Asian Games is mainly due to the Herculean efforts and organising ability of Anthony de Mello," he said.

There was yet a further ambition for De Mello. "We have the ability and capacity to stage the 1964 Olympics in Delhi, if the supine Indian Olympic Association can only muster the courage to make a formal application," he said.

Another city in Asia did stage those Olympics. It was Tokyo.

The Asian Games did return in 1982 and Delhi also hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but 60 years after De Mello’s death, the Olympic dream has not yet come true for India.