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A TV point of view

vaibhav sharma | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on March 20, 2015

What next? Musingon the transition ofthe Indian team in thepost-Tendulkar age,Bhattacharya’sconclusion isinscrutable andindecipherable. -- KR Deepak

After Tendulkar:The New Stars ofIndian CricketSoumyaBhattacharyaAleph₹495

A look at Indian cricket post Tendulkar — suspended somewhere in between, devoid of perspective that comes from distance and inside knowledge that comes from proximity

In cricket stadiums around the world, there is usually a divide between the scribe and the fan. The press is the inveterate Brahmin in the house, a privileged lot lording over the spectator from their air-conditioned box. The assumption is that cricket journalists — mostly men, seated in their ivory towers — are somehow above the ordinary fan. More often than not, the contrary is true. Many long-timers on the cricket beat, with thousands of kilometres on the clock, are jaded and have little insight to offer. On the other hand, many fans in the stands are often deeply knowledgeable, driven solely by affection for the game and without the pomposity and self-importance that tends to overtake many veteran journalists. Yet Indian cricket, despite the global phenomenon it is, has produced few equivalents of Nick Hornby or the late David Foster Wallace; pure fans who can describe their passion for the sport with the delicacy of art.

It is one of the reasons why Soumya Bhattacharya’s first book You Must Like Cricket? was a gust of fresh air. A memoir of the Indian cricket fan, it didn’t eschew emotion and it didn’t bother with the feigned expertise that cricket journalists routinely spout. While not quite Hornbyesque, it illustrated an important truth: to be a fan of Indian cricket was not to necessarily abandon thought. Bhattacharya followed it up with a slimmer second volume, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a variation on the same theme.

While the first two books were obsessed by what is now India’s previous generation of cricketers — Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar, Kumble, Laxman — in After Tendulkar, his third on the sport, Bhattacharya turns his gaze towards the new crop of stars.

As is amply clear from the title, Bhattacharya’s reference point is the retirement of Tendulkar, the greatest among a great constellation of cricketers, in late 2013.

Bhattacharya takes off from Tendulkar’s last two Tests, an impassioned farewell of a volume and magnitude rarely seen in sport before, interspersing the narrative with the sketches of India’s new stars who had begun appearing on the horizon as Tendulkar prepared to bid goodbye.

It is an interesting approach; the problem, as cricketers would say, is in the execution.

The rise of India’s new cricket stars makes for a fascinating tale: it is the story of India itself and the small-town mobility and ambition engendered by the country’s economic liberalisation. Unfortunately, Bhattacharya’s profiles are flat, cobbled together second-hand from various news sources. His enthusiasm is unmistakable; what is sorely lacking is the legwork. What prevents Bhattacharya from scouring the lanes of Ranchi in search of Dhoni’s origins? Or spending time in west Delhi, to gain insight into the attitude of Virat Kohli?

In the second and final section, Bhattacharya recounts the team’s performance after Tendulkar’s retirement in what he describes as “their five key assignments between November 2013 and October 2014”. What follows is a chronological, series-by-series account of India’s tours to South Africa, New Zealand and England as well as the Asia Cup and the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.

However, unlike, say the gripping Ashes tour diaries of Gideon Haigh that are a delightful blend of anecdote and the discernment that comes from watching the game firsthand, Bhattacharya is encumbered by being a distant, cursory observer. That may be no bad thing in itself; the problem is that Bhattacharya neither has nor is inclined towards the historical long view of Mukul Kesavan or Ramachandra Guha. After Tendulkar is a book strangely suspended somewhere in between, with neither the left-field perspective that comes from distance or the inside knowledge that comes from proximity to the game.

After more than 200 pages, musing on the transition of the Indian team in the post-Tendulkar age, Bhattacharya’s conclusion is inscrutable as it is indecipherable: “…the hub of this team is the best set of young players we have. It is hard to look beyond them. This is what we have. It is either this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.”

Elsewhere facts are sacrificed to hyperbole, a usual malaise of Indian cricket writing.

Describing the moment Kohli occupied the number four slot, Tendulkar’s revered batting position in Test matches, on the Indian tour of South Africa, Bhattacharya writes: “The spot in which India had seen no one else but a certain batsman since before the Berlin Wall had fallen.” In truth, Tendulkar occupied the number four position only in the fall of 1992 — three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — batting at number six as late as the Indian tour of Australia in January that year.

Great sports books from the fan’s vantage point are defined by their primary material: Fan narratives get their singularity from stories, disappointments and triumphs, all of them glimpsed firsthand. While Bhattacharya’s first book had a freshness undiluted by press-box scepticism, the novelty began to wear off in his second. In After Tendulkar, the formula feels positively repetitive.

The growing wealth of the Indian middle class over the past two decades has meant that India has the most formidable travelling support. Bhattacharya’s fandom doesn’t seem of the regular stadium-going kind. He seems, for the most part, a creature of the television. That doesn’t disqualify anyone from writing on cricket. But, as the book sadly illustrates, it usually doesn’t provide material for great writing either.

(Vaibhav Sharma is the author of Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup)

Published on March 20, 2015

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