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Going soft on the ‘Gods’

Priyansh | Updated on May 11, 2018 Published on May 11, 2018

Many a slip Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians tries to focus on the pressure points of Indian cricket, but is plagued by evasions and elisions. Photo: N Sridharan   -  SportStar

Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians Boria Majumdar Simon and Schuster Non-fiction ₹699

Boria Majumdar’s professed proximity to cricket stars makes it difficult for him to think critically about them; instead, he offers limited and run-of-the-mill insights

“With Indian cricketers being the countries’ (sic) foremost national icons, most people who come in contact with them turn fans for a brief period of time. Taking selfies and trying to enjoy the moment is natural, but in doing so, particular ground is ceded.”

Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians Boria Majumdar Simon and Schuster Non-fiction ₹699

 

Boria Majumdar wrote those lines midway through Eleven Gods and a Billion Indianswith unconscious irony. They strike at the core of this book’s struggle. In his attempt to write a definitive book on Indian cricket, Majumdar is keen to assess the subject from a distance. However, so enmeshed is he in the network, that he is far from being able to be objective.

Majumdar’s professed proximity to cricket stars and administrators makes it difficult for him to think critically about them. Constrained by his association, the historian and journalist offers insights that are limited and run-of-the-mill. Consequently, we get an account that is part-summary, part-reminiscence, and some gossip.

The canon of cricket writing in India is already extensive. Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field was a comprehensive social history of the sport in the Indian context. Ashis Nandy’s provocative The Tao of Cricket shaped the narrative anew while, going further back in time, Richard Cashman’s Patrons, Players and the Crowd remains the sharpest take on Indian cricket by a foreigner.

When one seeks to locate Majumdar’s latest work in this group, confusion abounds. Even as it focuses on the pressure points of Indian cricket, it is plagued by evasions and elisions. To wit, when Majumdar is displeased with MS Dhoni’s conduct in the aftermath of the IPL spot-fixing scandal, he cannot bring himself to offer wholehearted criticism of the former skipper. It is an occupational hazard all journalists will recognise; Majumdar, unfortunately, errs on the side of caution — “I leave it to the readers to judge.”

Even more disturbing is the positive commentary Anurag Thakur and Arun Jaitley receive, even as Majumdar delightfully excoriates other administrators. Thakur’s refusal to pave the way for Lodha reforms at the BCCI is brushed aside; Jaitley is put under no scrutiny for the corruption allegations which beset his time at the Delhi District Cricket Association. Majumdar also eschews any mention of the controversy surrounding the BCCI-commissioned social history of Indian cricket that he wrote during the late Jagmohan Dalmiya’s tenure.

On his favourite cricketers, though, Majumdar writes at length and reserves personal references for them. Such is his proximity to Sachin Tendulkar, we are told, that the writer is convinced he would not have lied during the Greg Chappell controversy. Or that Sourav Ganguly could not fix matches, just because Majumdar has known him since 1992. These claims might very well be true, but they carry the whiff of self-promotion.

Nevertheless, the book does have a delightful section of photos and archival material. Majumdar is on firmer footing here, among a collection which travels through the many eras of Indian cricket.

His proficiency as a historian shines through in the parts that deal with cricket in an earlier era. The chapter on pre-1857 cricket deserves mention.

However, too often, Majumdar’s historical take on Indian cricket is not interpretative. The narrative is driven by a single argument, with many loose ends. This is stark when Majumdar looks back at events in the 21st century. Arguably, intimacy clouds his perspective and garrulous writing obscures the issues at hand. A typical Majumdar argument goes like this, “Was the ICC being unfair? Was it a case of different parameters for different people? And could Azharuddin and some the others, who were implicated at the turn of the millennium, ever consider this issue a completely closed chapter? These are questions, yes, but there are no real answers.”

Therein lies the issue. More often than not, Majumdar — perhaps drawing from the journalistic streak within him — poses too many questions without really answering them. Fence-sitting is a constant feature.

Even when assertions are made, Majumdar sticks to clichés on India’s economy, its cricket fans and the IPL. In the simplistic narratives in which he swims, Tendulkar is the epitome of a nationalist, and all those found guilty of spot-fixing anti-national. From a piece of writing that ostensibly sets out to be critical scholarship, one would expect greater nuance.

That, however, may not be forthcoming. Majumdar envisages the media as a support system for Virat Kohli as the Indian team embarks on tough tours to England and Australia. While one may accept his argument against invasive and slanderous journalism, it seems rather curious that the author should advocate that journalists function as an extension of the cricket side. Perhaps, he would like a return to the 2008 Perth Test which he recalled in this book. “We were cheering every run and were more fans than journalists.” Well, quite!

Priyansh is an independent sports writer in New Delhi; @GarrulousBoy

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Published on May 11, 2018
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