Column | An anthology of the best of cricket writings by Indians

Indian Innings - The Journey of Indian Cricket from 1947
The anthology consists of seven sections. Image courtesy: Amazon India

English language and the game of cricket are arguably two of the greatest legacies left behind by the nearly two century long colonial rule in India. While the working knowledge and command over the language of the British rulers helped many an Indian in finding opportunities abroad for studies and livelihood, the sport invented by them for leisure during their summer months rose up the popularity charts during the years after their exit. If Indian cricket came of age during the early 1970s following Test series wins in the West Indies and England, it was the World Cup win in 1983 that made it a truly national sport. It soon eclipsed field hockey, which was even otherwise on a decline, and moved to the top spot both with regard the number of people following it as well as in reach across the length and breadth of a large nation.

Cricket is a unique sport in that it has provided the world with a rich literature. No other sporting discipline comes close to cricket in this regard. This could be attributed to “English” origins of this sport or due to the fact that it used to played over five days or more during its initial phases, which provided opportunities for those blessed with literary prowess to contribute with words, thus enriching the game. Thus, starting from Neville Cardus, there is a long line of distinguished writers whose quills have embellished both the language and the sport through their works. Another interesting fact is that even authors with a distinct leanings towards Marxist ideals, like C L R James, chose to decorate this most colonial of all sporting activities through their writings!

It can be said with absolute certainty and a complete lack of humility that India is today the financial powerhouse that controls the game. We have taken over the role that used to be played by England, and later by that country along with Australia, not only in controlling the conduct of affairs of the International Cricket Council, but in deciding the international calendar for this sport. We have today national sides in men's, women's and even junior sections that rank among the top three in the world. Our cricketers are the largest money spinners in the game today, a fact that is appreciated by bodies set up for running the game in other countries.

Along with that, cricket literature in India also bloomed though it is doubtful whether this aspect has won due regard and appreciation. Starting out as reports filed for matches during the days prior to live telecast of games, it has evolved into deep studies of the impact of this sport on the society and the changes brought forth by it. Reputed scholars such as Ramachandra Guha have penned brilliant works on the subject, as have other writers of high standing who follow the game closely. Hence it is only in the fitness of times that an anthology of the best of cricket writings by Indians was put together. The work “Indian Innings - The Journey of Indian Cricket from 1947”, edited by Ayaz Memon, and brought out a few months ago, fills this gap admirably.

The anthology consists of seven sections, with the first five dealing with the various periods from 1947 till 2015. Writings on the subject were sparse during the phase prior to 1970, as evidenced by the fact that there are only two articles in this section. The next section covers the two decades since 1970, while the one after that covers the last decade of 20th century and India’s incredible win over the Aussies at Kolkata in 2001. The fourth and fifth segments cover the decade from 2001 till 2011 and the five years since then respectively. The last two sections feature domestic cricket and the period since 2015, till India’s win at Brisbane in January, 2021.

All the prominent writers on cricket feature in the anthology, starting from the legendary figures such as Rajan Bala and Raju Bharatan down to the players-turned-commentators-cum-columnists including Sunil Gavaskar and Sanjay Manjrekar. There are pieces by Shashi Tharoor, Guha, Shobha De, Chidanand Rajghatta and Mukul Kesavan - persons renowned for expertise in fields outside cricket but are passionate about the game. All the great moments in Indian cricket are captured in vivid details by reporters present at the venues where history was made, Women’s cricket too is covered as are other areas like administrators, grounds etc. In short, this work comes close to being a complete history of the game in India from 1971 onwards.

In such an exquisite feast of literary delicacies, it is difficult to pick any one article as the best or even choose a few as better than the rest. Each of the pieces in the work are outstanding articles penned to perfection by veteran practitioners of this art. Hence comparisons are not only unwarranted but tend to be inutile exercises as well. But a couple of articles deserve special mention if only for the circumstances in which they were penned.

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor. File photo

The first amongst them is the one by Shashi Tharoor titled “Sunil Gavaskar as the embodiment of Independent India”. In January, 1985, the cover story run by the popular magazine “Illustrated Weekly of India” with the title “Out: is he India’s worst captain ever?” was written by Tharoor and focused on Gavaskar’s leadership skills or lack of it. In this story, Tharoor roundly criticised Gavaskar for the manner in which he led the side in the third Test of the series against England at Kolkata. While it was true that Gavaskar had a love-hate relationship with the Eden Gardens crowd and his captaincy in that match left much to be desired, it was extremely uncharitable to club him in the same league as Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy) and Dattu Gaekwad with regard to leadership skills. Gavaskar had the last laugh when he led India to triumph in the World Championship of Cricket held in Australia within another two months, after which he stepped down in style. Tharoor has attempted, through his article in the anthology, to make amends for his words of 1985, though one does not know whether Gavaskar will be willing to completely forgive him for the rather inconsiderate criticism.

The other article deserving special mention is titled “You’ve got to feel for them” written by Clayton Murzello, sports editor of Mid-Day in June, 2020. This was penned by Murzello on hearing about the death of Rajinder Goel, the greatest spin bowler not to have played for India, despite a tally of 637 scalps in first-class cricket. The article covers the careers of some other players similarly unfortunate not to win the nod of the national selectors or were treated shabbily despite putting their heart and soul into the game. One’s heart goes out to those who could not get opportunities at the highest level despite possessing the talent and had the weight of performances behind them. It is a tribute to these brave hearts that they took the disappointments in their stride and moved on in life.

I recommend the anthology “Indian Innings - The Journey of Indian Cricket from 1947” to all followers of the sport who are interested in understanding the history of the game and its evolution in our country. This book will add to the lustre of the collection of any bibliophile, besides being a readymade reference material for students of this popular sport.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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