Saturday, March 03, 2007

The best Indian cricket writing

This weekend's issue of Mint is a cricket special, and I have in it a long piece on the best Indian books about cricket. The main essay is about three writers who followed the game in a non-professional way, and it's accompanied by a box with three more recommendations.

Cricket books, like clouds, can be broadly divided into three classes.

The first is the lot written by cricketers themselves, putting down cherry and willow and taking up the pen, or more likely, the dictaphone. These tend mostly to be autobiographies. Their literary merit is often minimal—rare is the cricketer who, like Navjot Sidhu, prefers a book to a beer, and look what he’s done to the language—but at their best, they successfully evoke the hothouse atmosphere and complex dynamics of a team sport played over five days as only those with personal experience can.

Think of Steve Waugh’s massive, but very readable autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, published last year, or Mike Brearley’s Phoenix from the Ashes, the England captain’s riveting account of the great Ashes series of 1981. Sunil Gavaskar’s Sunny Days—which he wrote himself, painstakingly, in longhand—still remains perhaps the best Indian example of this kind of cricket book. Kapil Dev, on the other hand, is a ghostwriter’s dream, having produced, at judicious intervals and with different publishers, three autobiographies (Cricket My Style, By God's Decree, Straight From The Heart). A new one may be in the shops even as you read this.

The second set is that written by professional cricket writers. These are the widest in range—histories, biographies, tour books—and also the greatest in number: in England, cricket publishing is a small industry. But again, the number of truly good books by Indian cricket writers is depressingly few. The first one I can remember reading is Harsha Bhogle’s biography of Mohammad Azharuddin, now a fallen hero, but a magician in his prime. A recent book which went straight to the top of the class is Pundits From Pakistan, Rahul Bhattacharya’s fizzing account of India’s landmark tour of Pakistan in 2004.

The third set, often distinct in style, tone and emphasis from the second, is that written by men of letters who also happen to love cricket and have kept an eye upon it all their working lives. The West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James’ classic, Beyond The Boundary (1963), mixing politics, history and sociology with cricket, is universally reckoned one of the best cricket books ever written. P.G. Wodehouse wrote some superbly funny cricket (and golf) stories, and Alan Ross, long-time editor of London magazine, wrote a fine biography of Ranji. In this one area, Indian cricket writing, too, has been well-served. Three books stand out.

The poet Dom Moraes (1938-2006) was also a writer of thrilling prose and during his lifetime, he wrote books on subjects as disparate as Indira Gandhi, Madhya Pradesh and, memorably, Sunil Gavaskar. Merely a few words from the preface of Sunil Gavaskar (Macmillan, 1987)—in which Moraes summons up a picture of Gavaskar’s “rolling walk, the floppy white hat, the elephant hair bracelet and the golden necklet” and recalls his drive off the front foot, “body in balance, the long blade drilling the ball to left and right of cover or straight in course as a moonrocket to the boundary”—are evidence enough that Moraes could do for cricketing prose what Gavaskar did for batsmanship.

Moraes walks along the lanes of Chikalwadi in Dadar, where Gavaskar played in his boyhood, and speaks not only to his subject, but also his family and friends. The result is a rounded portrait of not just Gavaskar the cricketer, a master technician who could also explode in attack, but also Gavaskar the man, “a curious mixture of tolerance and touchiness”.

“No cricket one has watched or read about can ultimately be as memorable as the cricket one has played oneself, no matter at what level.” This is the assertion—which anyone who has ever played competitive cricket of any kind knows to be true—made by Sujit Mukherjee (1930-2003) in his Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer (Ravi Dayal, 1996).

Mukherjee, a professor of English and later a publisher, played intermittently for Bihar in the Ranji Trophy during the 1950s. In his luminous account, told in graceful and understated prose, Patna becomes the unlikely centre of the cricketing universe, and the joys and travails of the school, college and club cricket scene—travelling long distances in third-class train compartments, sharing out precious Gunn & Moore cricket bats—take on a warming significance. Reading it, I was taken back to the 28 not out I once made in Class 7 during a run-chase on a hot afternoon to win the match for my side—but we’ll leave that for another day.

And most enjoyable of all, standing tall in the Playing XI of the best cricket books ever written, is historian Ramachandra Guha’s States of Indian Cricket (Permanent Black, 2005). This brings together in updated form two books Guha wrote in the early 1990s: Wickets in the East, which makes up imaginary all-time elevens of the great Indian state sides, retailing superb anecdotes passed down over the decades, and Spin and Other Turns, a set of dazzling essays about the cricketers—Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Kapil Dev, Bishan Bedi—responsible for Indian cricket’s coming-of-age in the 1970s.

Like the Australian Gideon Haigh, Guha is, in many ways, the ideal cricket writer. In these books, there is an enthusiast’s penchant for reminiscence, generating some dramatic opening lines (“In 1966 I made what turned out to be an incredibly shrewd decision for an eight-year-old”); a historian’s feel for provocative generalization (“Cricket chauvinism runs across two axes, those of nation and generation”); a scholar’s love of ordered argument leavened by trivia (the home of the Maharashtra stalwart D.B. Deodhar “lay on a lane named after himself—surely a unique honour for a cricketer”; the young Bishan Bedi possessed at one time “a collection of 10,000 marbles, won from all the other little boys in Amritsar”); and a great cricket writer’s eye for points of style and technique, as in the masterly discussion of the art of Bedi and Gavaskar. Guha has produced another great cricket book, the magisterial A Corner of a Foreign Field, but States of Indian Cricket is arguably the more entertaining work.

And three other noteworthy Indian cricket books:

Pundits From Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya (Picador, 2005)
That Bhattacharya is the best cricket writer of his generation was confirmed by this, a heady and delightful account of India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004. The reader will find here finely detailed accounts of the games—Virender Sehwag’s triple-hundred at Multan has never been better described—braided in with plenty of colloquial talk with old-time stars and moments of skittering comedy. Not to be missed.

Azhar by Harsha Bhogle (Penguin/Viking, 1994)
“There can be few things more beautiful in life than Mohammad Azharuddin in flight,” wrote Azhar’s fellow Hyderabadi, Harsha Bhogle, at the beginning of this book, written some years before the subject’s fall from grace for match-fixing. No trace of that ignominious story can be found here, but Azhar’s quicksilver feet and wizard touch—no one has ever made a simple dab for a single look so attractive—are memorialized in this excellent biography.

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan (Hamish Hamilton, 1935)
R.K. Narayan’s first novel remains as fresh as ever. It tells of the capers of a group of schoolboys from sleepy Malgudi (this fictional town was to become his standard setting), seeking to emulate the great MCC with a cricket club of their own. Swami and Friends expresses excitement about cricket tinged with a slight contemporary unease with colonial pastimes—the doubting Swami, we are told, was “familiar with Hobbs, Bradman and Duleep”, but he had “not thought of cricket as something that he himself had to play.”


Anonymous said...

An enjoyable piece. But what about the first cricket book I read, Gavaskar's 'Idols'?

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - *Idols* was among the first cricket books I read as well. I was about seven, and after that I quickly read *Sunny Days*, *Runs 'n Ruins*, and *One-Day Wonders*, and for a brief while if someone asked me who my favourite writer was, I'd say Sunil Gavaskar. *Idols* was quite a good book, but it's not spectacular in any way, just unusual coming from an Indian cricketer.

Kartikeya Date said...

It leaves me wanting to read a cricket book for the rest of the weekend..... :)

I recently finished Waugh's autobiography - it seemed in large part a compilation of Waugh's detailed tour diaries. Colin Cowdrey's Autobiography MCC was a different kind of autobiography (i suppose he wrote it himself), which was also a heartfelt insight into the English game. Cowdrey was the last of the great amateurs and his book reveals that.

I remember Gavaskar's books - he used to be my favorite cricket writer too.... until i read Cowdrey's book, and later Guha...

One other very interesting cricket book i read recently was Bacher's biography - someone who'd been an administrator in pre and post apartheid SA, and also been a Springbok.

Other biograhies tend to be almost hagiographic such as Mahiyar Morwalla's (im not sure ive spelt this right) book about Sobers and Vaibhav Purandare's recent biography of Tendulkar. But then again - hagiographies probably sit well on Tendulkar and Sobers.

Anyways..... i enjoyed reading your piece! Thanks!

Chandrahas said...

Kartikeya - That's a very good survey - let me know whenever you're in Bombay, and we should get together to talk cricket. I notice you have a good cricket blog as well - enjoyed reading some of your pieces.

I haven't read Waugh's book in full, but I keep dipping into it, and I don't think there's a better book for giving a feel of what Test cricket is all about.

There's a bit in which he says how, when a wicket fell and it was his turn to come in to bat, he always liked getting in and taking guard before the opposition had dispersed after their post-wicket celebration. This gave him a feeling of being in control of things, much more than arriving and finding the bowler waiting at the top of his mark.

I thought little things like this very revelatory of just why he was just such a great sportsman - in my view the most influential Test cricketer ever, someone who took the game by the scruff of the neck and changed it for good.

Geoff Boycott's tour diaries are very good too - you sometimes come across them in second-hand book shops. That's another man who knew what Test cricket was all about - when Holding and Roberts weren't thirsting for his blood, it was Lillee and Thomson.

And I thought Purandare's book on Tendulkar was actually quite a worthy effort - it defamiliarises Tendulkar for us in a way a sloppily written biography never would.

Okay, now it's lunch break.

Kartikeya Date said...

Yes.... Waugh's is a very Australian account of Test Cricket. It would be fascinating to read Mark Waugh's account of his life in Cricket - given that he played 108 of his 128 Tests partnering his brother in the middle order....

I hope he does write it.

Suhas said...

Very enjoyable. I'm in the middle of 'Beyond a Boundary' at the moment; I think it's a must read as far as the backgroumd of west Indies Cricket is concerned. A few more recommendations:

1) Dilip Doshi's autobiography 'Spin Punch', a worthy and sometimes better recollection from a purist cricketer who didn't fit in with the overly commercial times.

2) Tim May's book 'Mayhem'. This is an unusual book a friend picked up from Australia. Tim May recollects his visit to the Subcontinent during the 87 world cup, in the form of a tour diary. Except, the names are all changed, some of the stories are true and some are exaggerated. he claims it's up to us to figure it out. A very funny book.

3) Jyotsana Poddar's compilation 'Cricketing Memories' which brings together some 50 players. Semi-coffee table, actually. Each player(from Len Hutton to Kapil Dev) has a page to himself to describe his funniest memories of cricket, and there are accompanying cartoons by RK Laxman, mario Miranda and Sudhir Dhar. Really entertaining, with more depth than it suggests.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to everybody for their comments - I hadn't heard of some of the cricket books mentioned here and all of them seem interesting.

Chandrahas - I think I was older than seven when I read 'Idols' but I mustn't have been even ten because I remember never having heard of players like Alan Knott, John Snow, Derek Underwood and Padmakar Shivalkar. My friends and I used to play a game in which we had to guess cricket players' names (I won't explain the rules here) and the cricketers I discovered in this book came in handy. (I believe, however, that there was an argument over whether Shivalkar had played international cricket; Ranji players weren't allowed.)

Also, have you read any of John Feinstein's books? I read 'March To Madness' - his book on US college basketball - two or three years ago and in spite of having absolutely no interest in the topic, enjoyed the book throughly. (If you're interested in tennis, you might want to read his 'Hard Courts'.)

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - Yes, in those times it was rare of find an Indian cricket book with a breadth of reference as wide as Gavaskar's. I remember being similarly fascinated with stories of cricketers I knew only by name.

I haven't read any John Feinstein, but I have a modest interest in boxing journalism. David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali is the best sports book I've ever read - I remember sitting up all night reading it when I was twenty. Remnick's new book *Reporting* has pieces on some other boxers, including Mike Tyson, but I haven't been able to lay my hands on it yet.

Anonymous said...

The best by an Indian author is certainly 'corner of a foreign field' by ramachandra guha. it is in many ways comparable to 'beyond a boundary'.

Balakrishnan said...

One book,though an anthology,which should have found mention in your piece,just for the good service it renders us readers,who otherwise could only have dreamed of reading Neville Cardus,CLR James or Jack Fingleton,is 'The Picador book of cricket' compiled by Guha.It surely merits place in bookshelves of cricket lovers.

Two question for which I wait for an answer:

1)Where in India can I lay my hands on CLR James'Beyond a Boundary'

2) Why do such good books go out of print and become collector's item, when in cricket crazy India, it should easily be available of the shelf for people to lap it up.


Chandrahas said...

Balakrishnan - The Picador Book of Cricket is no doubt a first-rate anthology, but there's no way I could have included it in a surevy of the best Indian cricket writing. Only the editor of the book is Indian.

As for Beyound A Boundary, it's very hard to find it in India - I've never seen it in a bookshop. Actually, although we are a cricket-crazy nation, the demand for cricket books is relatively low, so I'm not surprised that it's hard to find.

Anonymous said...

Beyond a Boundry can be found in Landmark at Andheri (W). Extremely good book. Corner of a Foriegn Field is similar to it, in fact Guha may have drawn inspiration from CLR... his profiling of Baloo Palwankar(sic) is silar to what James does with Constantine though Guha has to rely on third party information unlike James.

Dr. V.P Anvar Sadhath said...

Can anyone give a list of Novels dealing with cricket, from the Indian subcontinent and other regions.

Anvar Sadhath