Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cricket with Ram Guha

I’ve stayed up late several times in the last week reading Ramachandra Guha’s magnificent new book, The States of Indian Cricket: Anecdotal Histories. It’s not really a new book, in that it revises and updates two of his books published in the early nineties, Wickets in the East and Spin and Other Turns. I wonder how I missed them when they first came out, for I was just entering my teens then, and possessed a fine collection of cricket books, mostly culled from secondhand bookshops, that I prized dearly, reread incessantly – Harsha Bhogle’s biography of Azhar, a boyhood hero of mine, was a particular favourite – and kept on the bookshelf nearest to my bed. I don’t think I was ever as passionate about cricket as in those four or five years; everything else came second, and a pretty distant second too.

Wickets in the East is like an extended selection meeting, with the privilege of being able to rove over all of recorded history: in it Guha picks a representative eleven for each of the great regional powers of Indian cricket – Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengal, and some of the princely states of old – and goes over a lot of history in the process, always fluently and enjoyably. Spin and Other Turns consists of a series of long essays about the lead characters of Indian cricket’s ‘coming of age’ in the seventies – Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, the famous spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkatraghavan, and Kapil Dev – all of whom Guha had the good fortune to watch at close quarters on many occasions. (For someone who is not a pure cricket writer by profession, Guha appears to have seen a massive amount of live cricket, including a great amount of Ranji Trophy play.)

The States of Indian Cricket contains some truly sumptuous prose. Here is Guha in a long lead-up to a cricketer he admired greatly, the wicketkeeper-batsman Budhi Kunderan:
Once or twice a year I take what must be one of the loveliest short drives in the country, the fifty-mile road that runs from Mangalore’s Bajpae airport to the university town of Manipal. Keeping the sea on the left, the road passes through acres of paddy fields, interspersed with areca gardens and the odd remnant of rain forest. Every five miles or so we drive over a river, a leisurely boatman in the water. The artefacts of man that one encounters include mosques, churches, Jain monasteries, and Hindu temples. Here in western Karnataka cultural diversity matches ecological diversity, the D’Souzas mixing with the Alis and the Raos, the forests with the fields and the ocean.
The names of the towns en route are charmingly quaint too. There is Parbidri and there is Kapu and, exactly halfway between them, there is Karnad. Whenever my taxi enters this settlement the driver will surely tell me, ‘Saar, Girish Karnad coming from here.’ I can sense and share his pride in the achievements of the writer-actor, a man who has brought lustre to his town, his state, and his country. But I wish I could, at least once, summon up wit to tell the driver, as he passes through the next town on our way: ‘Saar, this is Mulki. Budhi Kunderan coming from here.’
In his essay about Gundappa Viswanath, Guha speaks about how popular the gentle, unassuming Viswanath was with both his team-mates and his opponents: he was “the best-loved cricketer” of his time. Among the traits of Viswanath’s batting against the spinners is that he virtually never lifted the ball. These details serve as a background to this story recounted by Guha:
…I once watched Vishy, at the Ferozeshah Kotla, in a Ranji Trophy match between Karnataka and Delhi, being beaten on the back foot by a delivery from the rising university star Praveen Uberoi. The ball had come in late with the arm instead of, as the batsman had anticipated, spinning away towards the off side. The ball was only narrowly missing leg stump, and the bowler, after pleading with the umpire to give the decision in his favour, sank to the ground in despair. Vishy watched calmly, but at the beginning of Uberoi’s next over, came dancing down the wicket to send the ball into the crowd over extra-cover.
Even the gentlest of men are sometimes moved to show an upstart his place.
I choose The States of Indian Cricket as one of my four Indian books of the year, along with Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, and Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s A Strange Attachment and Other Stories. And here is a much wider list of Indian books of the year by Sheela Reddy of Outlook.


plato_socrates said...

I stumbled upon your blog through Prem Panicker's blog in rediff. Your blog has a rich and varied fare. As a voracious reader who finds the daily newspapers too staid your blogs and forthright comments are a breath of fresh air. Regarding Ramachandra Guha I really enjoy his incisive and lyrical writing on cricket. He is truly a cricket historian and I would rate him as the Neville Cardus of India. Present day youngsters who do not know how the Quadrangular and Pentagular tournaments were held in pre Independent India and the cricketing greats that they produced would do well to at least browse through Ramachandra Guha's books if they do not have the time to go through it in full. Reading a page of Ramachandra Guha is like reading a book of Edward Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Third Empire.

Salil said...

I obtained a copy of this book a short while ago, and began reading "The States of Indian Cricket".

It's excellent reading - Guha's reverence for many of these players of old really shines out in the writing, and there have so far been a number of times when I've strongly wished that I could have witnessed the likes of Kunderan and Solkar play.

The chapter on Bombay cricket is a particularly fascinating read (although I do have a very strong pro-Bombay bias when cricket is concerned). Would you know of any other books that go any deeper into the subject?

Anonymous said...

Good piece. The book also seems very interesting. I too have passed that four or five year phase when most things came a distant second to cricket but Guha's excellent prose will hopefully reignite some of that passion.