A corner of London has long been associated with Indian cricket. The sprawling grounds of the Indian Gymkhana in Osterley used to be the venue of the first match of visiting Indian teams, helping them acclimatise to the English weather – but no longer.

Senior figures of the Indian community who played a key role in sustaining and enriching the Gymkhana over recent decades came together on Sunday to recall its century of existence, when many Test cricketers from India and other countries played, but the occasion was also tinged with regret.

Until recently, it was a tradition that every visiting Indian team would play its first match there. Almost every top Indian cricketer has played on this ground over the decades, including Vijay Merchant, Hemu Adhikari, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin.

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Steeped in history, the Gymkhana’s clubhouse is lined with photos of cricketers, along with the ‘maharajas’ of Bikaner and Patiala, who paid to purchase land in the early 20th century for the club, and of Meherbai Tata, the first lady member of the club in 1923.

The Sunday gathering included Labour MP Seema Malhotra (the Gymkhana is located in her constituency), industrialist Swraj Paul, entrepreneurs Rami Ranger and Joginder Sanger, and academic-industrialist Nat Puri.

Paul reflected the regret of many as he remarked: “We used to have the Indian team’s first match here, but that has not happened in recent years. We need to put in their head that by hosting and honouring them, we are honouring India”.

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Old-timers recalled that the last time the Indian team played there was in 1995. The tradition was discontinued allegedly due to considerations of commerce and security. The Indian team is currently in England, but no match is scheduled in the Gymkhana.

The Gymkhana has survived financial crises over the decades, with several individuals at the Sunday gathering coming to its rescue at various times. Its current expansion plans include building 14 rooms for visiting players and sports activities.

“Our ancestors left the gymkhana for the Indian community. In what shape are we leaving it for subsequent generations? We need to leave the heritage for our children. We have a great community, more members should know that they have a place here”, Paul added.

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Besides the cricket ground, the Gymkhana has an astro-turf hockey ground. Its hockey team has been a prominent participant in the national league. It also runs camps for children and people of various age groups.

The Gymkhana’s history reflects a bygone era, but it remains a vibrant place for sports and social interaction, with Indian and non-Indian members supporting it on and off the pitch – on the grounds, in a new gym, and a lively bar that serves Indian food.

As writer Mihir Bose says, “The gymkhana was promoted by Indian maharajahs at a time when cricket was used as a political instrument. It was more than a place for cricket, a semi-political place, where Indians were trying to say to the British that we are equal, better than you, like you”.

“It was unique in that no other former colony quite had a space like the Indian Gymkhana. It was also a home away from home for Indian cricket. The Indian diaspora used to welcome the visiting team at the Gymkhana, but things have changed in recent years.”

First Published: Jul 30, 2018 18:53 IST

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