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I think we should give up on ‘cleaning’ Indian cricket: Ramachandra Guha

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on December 01, 2020

Level field: Club cricket, Guha points out, is extremely competitive; the people who play it are passionate and strain every muscle to win   -  S RAMESH KURUP

The Commonwealth of Cricket documents an ardent fan’s lifelong engagement with the game

* Club cricket is extremely competitive. The people who play it are very passionate and they strain every muscle in order to win

* It has become worse in recent years, this ‘India-must-dominate-at-all-costs’ line of thought

* People forget everything that ails the game once they have that IPL-drug; it dulls their critical faculties

***

Ramachandra Guha may be better known for his books on India’s history (India After Gandhi) and ecology (The Unquiet Woods), but the writer is and has always been an old-school cricket devotee. His 2002 book A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport remains part of the starter kit for those new to the game’s past and present. Guha’s latest is a collection of personal essays called The Commonwealth of Cricket. It documents his lifelong engagement with the game, from the teenager who played in the picturesque grounds of Dehradun in the 1970s to the veteran tasked by the Supreme Court to help clean up the sport’s administration in the country in 2017. And while Guha gave up on that particular enterprise (he quit in July that same year citing personal reasons), The Commonwealth of Cricket is a delightful read, which will appeal to newcomers, casual observers and diehards alike.

The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind / Ramachandra Guha / HarperCollins / Non-fiction / ₹699

 

Edited excerpts from a recent telephonic interview with Guha for BLink.

The Commonwealth of Cricket reads like an ode to cricket fandom, too, and not just the game itself. Could you talk us through the experience of following a club team or even a Ranji Trophy team, as compared to the ups and downs of following Team India’s fortunes?

You have to understand that when I started playing and following cricket, not every game was televised and, in any case, Test matches were few and far between. The need to engage with cricket at a local level was felt more urgently than it is now, for both fans and the players themselves. It’s impossible for people to conceive of certain scenarios today. People just won’t believe that a club match in Bangalore could feature Erapalli Prasanna and GR Viswanath playing in front of thousands of people, or that a [St] Xavier’s vs Ruia college game in Bombay could draw thousands of people coming to see [Sunil] Gavaskar and [Dilip] Vengsarkar.

When you’re 15 or 20 or 25 years old, the tangible, physical experience of watching a local game from the best place in the ground (near the sight screen) is simply incredible. Especially if there’s a talented, young club-level fast bowler looking to get an international batsman out, things like that.

You were playing a lot of cricket as a child and as a teenager. You discovered cricket writing around the same time — AA Thomson and Neville Cardus, in particular. Were you also reading cricket-based fiction, like say, PG Wodehouse’s schoolboy stories?

I love PG Wodehouse’s cricketing stories; I wish there were more of them! In fact in an early chapter (in The Commonwealth of Cricket) there’s a reference to V Ramdas, who played for my club. He was the brother of V Subramanya who went on to captain Karnataka’s Ranji team, and one of our teammates compared them to Wodehouse’s schoolboy character Mike Jackson and his brother Joe, a successful first-class cricketer. I didn’t take to some of the other fiction of the time, like stories about British village cricket. But I always enjoyed Wodehouse. I’ve read the Mike stories many times.

How about more recent fiction-involving-cricket, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman?

I must confess that I’ve still not read Chinaman despite hearing very good things. I loved Netherland, though; I think it’s a fantastic book. There are many aspects that make that book remarkable. For some it’s the character of Chuck Ramkissoon, for others it’s the way it describes a certain kind of post-9/11 mood in America. But for me it was the way O’Neill describes club-level cricketing encounters using actual knowledge of cricketing techniques and so on. I remember one passage where he talks about a very orthodox opening batsman from Holland who always plays along the ground, no matter what. And now, all of a sudden he has to hit a four in the last over to win the match and he just cannot bring himself to do that. The way O’Neill describes all of this is beautiful and subtle.

Netherland, or for that matter, The Commonwealth of Cricket, also dispels the notion of club cricket being an essentially genteel, not-particularly-competitive exercise, doesn’t it? You write about “driving home in silence” with your uncle after your mistake leads to a narrow defeat for his beloved team.

Absolutely! Club cricket is extremely competitive. The people who play it are very passionate and they strain every muscle in order to win. Some of the most fiercely (but also, honestly and decently) played games I have ever seen in my life have been local games in Dehradun and Bangalore and Delhi. Anybody who has seen, played or written about local cricket for any period of time will know what I’m talking about.

You were obviously disappointed with Indian cricket, to an extent, which is why you left the BCCI in 2017. What would you say were some of the most sobering realisations you had during your time in this organisation?

The two things that immediately come to mind (and I expand upon these in the book), are one, the extent to which cricketers are compromised when it comes to things like conflict of interest and so on; and two, the BCCI’s unshakeable belief that because India is the so-called cash cow of world cricket, because we bring more money to the table, because we have the IPL, we should control each and every aspect of the game the world over. Moreover, I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon. In fact, it has become worse in recent years, this ‘India-must-dominate-at-all-costs’ line of thought.

What, then, is the road forward, according to you?

I’ve said this before as well, I think we should give up on ‘cleaning’ Indian cricket. With [Sourav] Ganguly and Jay Shah and N Srinivasan in charge it’s not going to happen; plus the drug of the IPL for two months every year is too strong. The only way the public will start asking questions is if (and that’s a big if) India starts losing a string of international series. India has 30 first-class teams compared to say, Australia, which has just 8, we have so many more people. And yet we lose so frequently overseas; this itself should tell you how poorly the game is run in India. People forget everything that ails the game once they have that IPL-drug; it dulls their critical faculties.

There’s an argument to be made for T20 having accelerated the evolution of the ODI game, in particular...

See, I’m not saying it hasn’t done that — or that there is something inherently terrible about the T20 game, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, Test cricket is simply a better, richer, more interesting game with more interesting options, any day of the week. You take an encounter between a top-class spin bowler today, say an R Ashwin, against a great batsman like AB De Villiers.

Real battlefield: Guha believes that Test cricket is a better, richer and more interesting game than T20   -  KR DEEPAK

 

In a T20 game, he’s only thinking about whether to sweep/reverse-sweep him for four or slog-sweep him for six. In a Test game, with a slip, a silly point and a forward short leg near his bat, De Villiers has nearly infinite options in his mind for both attack and defence. He can play forward, play back, take the ball on the full, drop it dead at his feet — this adds so many dimensions to the game and to the viewing experience. It’s just a better game, the Test match.

At one point in the book you analyse Imran Khan’s captaincy along with some observations about his ongoing tenure as the prime minister of Pakistan. Do you feel that cricketers entering politics is inevitable for India and Pakistan — and has this, in your opinion, led to positive developments?

It’s interesting; no Indian cricketer has really risen to any kind of meaningful power, let alone the most powerful office in the country like Imran. There have been MPs aplenty like Kirti Azad, Chetan Chauhan and now guys like Gautam Gambhir. But nobody has been powerful enough to bring about any real change; nobody has leveraged their cricketing experiences either. Among recent cricketers, [Sachin] Tendulkar and [MS] Dhoni could easily enter politics owing to their colossal popularity. I’m sure [Virat] Kohli, when he retires, will be approached, too. But it’s a risk. It’s an uncertain future, if you look at it from their point of view.

Aditya Mani Jha is Delhi-based writer

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Published on December 01, 2020
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