Two books I picked up recently have turned out to be interesting exercises in nostalgia: Out of the Box by Harsha
Bhogle and Straight Drive by Sunil Gavaskar.
Both are collections of columns [and the third cricket book I read recently, Shadows Across The Playing Field, by Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan, is also in effect nothing but two long columns looking at the history of Indo-Pak cricket from either side of the border].
Reading three book-sets of columns back to back made me wonder: how come there is no real cricket literature coming out of India? Harsha had an interesting take on this when we spoke recently. Excerpts:
When high quality television came to India, I was so optimistic about quality writing coming out. Television tells you the whole story, shows you replays, Hawkeye, super slow mo, six different commentators talking about it, so there is not much left for the cricket reporter to do. So I thought this was when great cricket writing would come in, because eventually the media must do what television cannot do to survive. Across the world, radio has evolved into a beautiful chatty commercial medium, which is something television cannot do for commercial reasons, and you have to respect that.
I thought writing would then go to another level, where someone sits and writes a beautiful story of all that happened during the day. It went exactly the other way. It went into a situation where editors were asking reporters only to go to the press conference and get the quotes back – and there is nothing more boring in Indian cricket than quotes from a press conference. And what I find equally baffling is every newspaper goes to the same press conference, and the quotes are completely different, because we don’t have a system of recording them.
As a result I think good cricket writing died. We still have some very few good writers; if you look at the newspaper space I think Anand Vasu is doing a very good job with the Hindustan Times, and in the magazine space Cricinfo has got some good writers, Sharda Ugra writes well for India Today – there is small list of people who write very well. But in the mainstream, where are the cricket writers? If cricket writers get celebrated, there will be more cricket writers coming in, that is number one. And if you want to put them together as a book, there is one thing that goes against that, which is that no one buys books in India — no one buys cricket books in India.
I was speaking to Akash Chopra recently and he told me his first print run for Beyond the Blues was 3000 copies. I intend to read his book, I haven’t read it yet, but – 3000 was his first print run! So if you get a second print run you sell 5000 copies? If you look at the amount of effort you put into writing it, 5000 copies will generate how much money for you? So you won’t find too many cricket books coming out of India. By contrast, Adam Gilchrist’s autobiography apparently sold 50-60,000 copies in no time.
Yeah, it did well in India too. I remember going to Crossword about a fortnight after the book was released, and they said they had received some 30-odd copies, and had run out.
That is not a bad number to sell in that time. And there is another thing that is happening as well, which is that technology is making the message shorter and shorter. So I wonder if a new generation will actually be able to paint a story. When you find that eight letter words are becoming three letter words to save space, and now people are tweeting – people like you: when new technology comes along you have to be part of it — so where will people write a nice 800-850 word story?
We used to follow cricket in the nineties, which was arguably the most seminal period in modern Indian cricket. Much happened during that time, good and bad. A critical history of that period, warts and all, could be a brilliant addition to Indian cricket literature — without sensationalizing, there is still a case to be made for a true story of all that happened during that period, because they help a better understanding of how our cricket moved from one era to another. But who wants a true story? If you put out a story of what actually happened during that time, the first thing that will happen is that all concerned will come up with press statements calling you a liar, saying nothing like that happened, saying that the team was one big happy family…
Correct. And I’ll tell you what else will happen – the news channels will pick out all the ‘sensational’ stuff. Because the news channels are only geared towards sensational stuff – and with some channels I suspect even that the truth is becoming far too heavy a burden to bear – people believe there is only sensational stuff happening in Indian cricket.
Like for example I know people who think every game is fixed; I know people who think Indian selectors are jokers, and everybody other than the eleven should be playing… So everything has to be news in India, just as there has to be a cruel mother in law, a docile daughter in law, a philandering son, so even in your group of eleven players all these characters have to be there. So Tendulkar must have something wrong with Dravid, and there must be a conspiracy against Ganguly, and there must be something about Yuvraj, so I don’t know how many people are now interested in cricket as a game.
So much for cricket literature. The compendiums of columns are worth a read for their own sake — like flipping through the pages of a memory book, there are points where you stop to chew the cud of your own memories, other points where you hear stories you missed the first time round, stories that add to your bank of anecdotes. For instance, here is Sunny on the topic of Karsan Ghavri’s ‘suspect’ action during the three-Test series in 1981.
Karsan’s bouncer was his most lethal ball, because it was seldom wasted. Also, because he bowled left arm over the wicket, the angle of the bouncer was such that if the batsman missed, then he would be hit. It was after Mike Brearley was hit, in spite of a visor, that the British press raised questions about the legality of his action, and then all the slow motion replays showed that Karsan’s action was clean as a whistle. This noise about his action was made again the following year in Australia, after he hit Greg Chappell on the head in the one-day game. the ball went off Greg’s head for leg byes which incidentally were the winning runs for Australia. As we raced back to the pavilion Greg said to me, ‘I don’t mind how many bouncers Karsan bowls, as long as he doesn’t chuck them.’ I told him, ‘You take care of Lenny (Pascoe) and I will take care of Karsan.’ From that moment onwards and also possibly because I did not support him in condemning the Melbourne pitch [Here’s the scorecard, and the Wisden almanack report, of that game], Greg turned cool towards me for the rest of the season.
At other times, you get an unexpected up close and personal look at what happens behind the scenes. As with this anecdote relating to Kapil Dev. Sunny, in a Jan 1, 1991 column suggesting that Kapil Dev’s efforts with bat and ball were flagging not because his time was up but because he wasn’t being challenged any more, offers this:
Having come from Chandigarh, he had the burning desire to prove himself the equal if not a better cricketer than all the other big town boys, and it was this burning desire to prove himself that I as a captain fueled continuously. And what marvelous results we got. For example, if I found that Kaps was flagging off a bit towards the end of the fourth over without a wicket, I would run up from my position in the slips to him in the middle of the over as he walked back to his bowling mark, and he would look at me to see if I had instructions for him. All I would say is that ‘I have come to give you a little breather while I walk slowly back to the slips.’ Without fail, the next three overs would be the quickest he would bowl, just to prove to me that he was not tired and needed no breathers. The other bait which provoked a similar response would be to ask him if it was okay if Kiri stood up to the stumps. Of course, having finished that query, all of us behind the wicket including Kiri would step back a few paces for the next few overs, as the ball would thud into Kiri’s gloves.
On the tangential topic of motivating players, here’s a story I’d blogged about some years back.
Back to Sunny and columns: There are times when, as you browse through that collection of 60 columns [the book was brought out to mark Sunny’s 60th birthday], you stumble on something that didn’t make too much sense at the time but which, in light of later knowledge, makes the story blindingly obvious. Here’s one such gem, dated May 7, 1992 [While the final few lines are the mother lode, I’m keying in an extended clip to provide context, and also because beside the central point, it is a fascinating study of the interpersonal undercurrents in Indian cricket]:
Anywhere a current or former captain goes, he is asked for his views on the Indian captaincy. The latest is ML Jaisimha, who has opined that Azhar should not be blamed for the team’s performance and its losses. His buddy Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi had commented in response to my suggestion that Kapil Dev be made player-manager of the Indian team that it would be an excellent idea if you did not wish him to get any more wickets or runs.
Typically, Pataudi did not elaborate why he thought that as player-manager Kapil Dev would not make more runs or take more wickets. One has to presume, therefore, that he thought the responsibility of the job would impair Kapil’s effectiveness as a cricketer. With his suggestion now that Kapil should be made captain, Pataudi is perhaps implying that the captaincy has little or no responsibility. This is hard to undersgtand, because just as the manager has to think about his players, so does the captain, and while a manager’s responsibility ends off the field, the captain’s not only begins on the field, but is also extended off the field in discussions on strategy and tactics. Of course, captaincy during Pataudi’s time and today is vastly different, with the Indian cricket lovers and the media being definitely less tolerant with failure now than before.
While Pataudi thought my suggestion was possibly made tongue-in-cheek, there is no doubt that the vast majority of cricket lovers knkow that Pataudi is employed by one of Kapil Dev’s companies (Pataudi’s words, not mine). They are also aware that Pataudi was the one who interviewed Manoj Prabhakar and got him to say that either Shastri or Kapil should be made captain.
Now even a kid who has just started taking interest in the game will tell you that in the aftermath of the World Cup, Shastri has as much chance of being captain in October as the sun of rising in the west. Yet Pataudi has taken no chances and has got Imran Khan also to say his bit about Shastri’s fitness, though what Imran has to do with Shastri’s fitness is beyond the intelligent as well as the simpleton.
If the idea is to show that Shastri went in spite of not being fit and thus did not have the team’s interests at heart, then Shastri could also turn around and ask how our bowlers who had done such a fine job earlier bowled so many loose deliveries in the matches against West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa.
While batsmen get accused of playing for themselves and not for the team, how come bowlers who suddenly become generous never get questioned? In all of this plotting and maneuvering, the captain Azharuddin has kept a dignified silence and all those who have had a go at him should be thankful for that, for believe me, if he opens his mouth, some players may not be players, leave alone be captains!