A cricket romantic’s broad sweep

KC Vijaya Kumar | Updated on December 11, 2020

Title: The Commonwealth of Cricket Author: Ramachandra Guha Publisher: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Price: ₹699

Guha’s love for the game shines through brightly, so does his anguish over the BCCI and CoA

Ramachandra Guha refuses to adhere to the stereotypes of being an academic-cum-historian. His is a world not entirely dwarfed by libraries or the long suit. Just as he is comfortable in leading global colleges, he is equally at ease, reclining beyond the ropes, one elbow pressed into freshly cut grass, his eyes narrowing upon the action unfolding across 22 yards, and an easy laughter is his constant accompaniment.

One of India’s leading thinkers with a vast body of literature under his belt, ranging from history to cricket; anthropology to environment, Guha’s is that refreshing voice that is all sunlight, a glorious cover-drive and a spinner ambushing a batsman. The willow game is his second breath and this is not restricted to its international avatars, he respects all its manifestations — national, provincial and club-level.

It is this sheer love for the game that shines through in his latest book ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket’. Guha’s anecdotal style, historical flourishes, self-confessed parochialism when it comes to backing Karnataka and Friends Union Cricket Club (FUCC), admiration for the glorious practitioners of the sport and extreme anger against the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for being caught in its own bubble, are the multiple themes that shimmer through the 347 pages of this literary effort that is entirely personal but with an universal appeal.

A regular at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium and RSI Ground besides making it a point to attend FUCC games, while also sauntering into the bookshops that dot Brigade Road and Church Street, notably Select, and then winding it down with coffee and conversations at Koshys, Guha’s heart beats for an inclusive India and cricket with all its splendid hues. The book captures this essence while following a narrative that conjures up his formative years in  Dehradun, detours to Kolkata, Delhi, tryst with Marxism, global sojourns and eventual settlement in Bangalore. Cricket remains the common thread and it is juxtaposed with India’s current affairs and social churn.

A ‘rigorous’ love

This is about a historian’s rigour and a fan’s abiding love and Guha holds an unflinching mirror to himself. He candidly admits that he is a failed cricketer, be it in Doon’s neighbourhood, with St. Stephen’s or in his few tilts through FUCC. His spinning fingers just about adequate and batting largely weak, but in his devotion to the sport, he remains second to none.

His respect for cricketers is intact though he is perceptive enough to split the man from his sporting attire. Sunil Gavaskar is a phenomenon and Guha backs that with a straight bat but at the same time he believes that ‘conflict of interest’ shadows the Mumbai maestro.

Sifting through history, sporting encounters and off-field endeavours in board-rooms and pavilions, Guha believes that India’s former captain and spin-legend Bishan Singh Bedi is one, whose integrity has never dimmed. There are some remarkable lines when he deals with the greats of the game. Sample this about the West Indian supremo Clive Lloyd: “The door was ajar, to be impatiently closed by the visiting captain. Lloyd came in, all seventy-five inches of him, the slouch and the spectacles masking the most malevolent of intentions.”

The 62-year-old has a professorial air and a student’s naughty streak. It is this blend that enlivens the book. There are pithy observations of players, self-deprecating accounts of those attempts to buy match-tickets be it at Lord’s or other grounds, the heart-break at being forced to remove GR Viswanath while picking Virat Kohli in an all-time Indian list and the frustration of briefly becoming an insider when he was part of the Committee of Administrators (CoA) following the Supreme Court’s intervention to clean up cricket through the Justice Lodha reforms, is obvious.

“I could understand why the BCCI’s officials were overawed by the aura around former and current superstars. But that our chairman (Vinod Rai), a distinguished civil servant, was similarly cowed by sporting reputations puzzled and dismayed me,” writes Guha while dwelling upon his stint in the CoA, which he eventually quit after failing to get any assurance from his fellow-members or the Board that the bogey of conflict of interest would be dismantled.

The rise of Indian cricket from its inception and its huge cast of characters are chronicled and equally the evolution of the BCCI to its current monolith spectacle is described with revulsion. Being the classicist, the author reveals his disdain for the shortest format and the commercial pitfalls that surround it, but it’s his viewpoint and he refuses to use any euphemisms while illustrating Board officials and players, past and present.

Bridges burnt and restored

Guha can relate to people at varying levels. The bridges burnt with Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, are later partially restored, and his deep love for his maternal uncle N Duraiswami, who in his eighties is still a bustling strength for FUCC, does not mask that silent anguish over his eternal hero’s soft-spot for right-wing politics. Yet, this book remains a tribute to Durai and the uncle-nephew bond is rather special despite their unspoken political dissonance.

A sense of wonder over hand-shakes with a few legends, a constant anger directed at nepotistic officials, and a twinge of pathos as he hints at this being his last cricketing book, are the lingering takeaways when the back-cover flips. Even the historian’s respect for spellings as they were back in the old days is retained. Lala Amarnath according to his father is a ‘Compleat Cricketer’ (page 44) with compleat being an archaic spelling for complete.

In a book that melds facts with emotions, there is a rare blip. Guha refers to the late Raj Singh Dungarpur as the Indian team’s manager in the 1983 World Cup when in reality it was PR Man Singh. That and perhaps his cynical views on T20s and the Indian Premier League, may grate those new-converts, who prefer the abridged version’s hype over the longevity of Tests. Despite these quibbles, this is an accomplished book that taps into the romance of cricket and also points out some warts.

The reviewer is the Sports Editor of The Hindu

Published on December 06, 2020

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