Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Ramachandra Guha: A lifetime of cricket

Note: This was my first (and, till date, only) sports cover story for Mint Lounge.

Sports writing, if unchecked, can quickly acquire spiritual fervour. The great Neville Cardus once wrote of Lancashire batsman Reggie Spooner: “(He) was one of the cricketers who, when I was very young, made me fall in love with the game…. The delight of it all went into my mind, I hope, to stay there, with all the delight that life has given me in various shapes, aspects, and essences. When the form has gone—for it is material and accidental, and therefore perishable—the spirit remains.”

Ramachandra Guha is less prone to ecstasies than Cardus, but the delight of cricket went into his mind at a very young age as well. He was four when he watched his first match, and not much older when he witnessed what would become his first cricketing memory. A visiting team was playing a local club in his home town of Dehradun. In the opening over, the Sikh captain of the visitors hit the ball out of the ground. Rain stopped play soon after. The match, Guha, 62, writes, “lasted five, perhaps ten, minutes. But I can see that hook shot still.”

In the foreword to The Picador Book Of Cricket, which he edited, Guha writes: “The cricket-book market nowadays is cornered by ghosted autobiographies and statistical compendiums. The essayist, the biographer, the traveller and the roving correspondent: there is scarcely any space for these kinds of writers any more.” This was in 2001. By then Guha had written two books on cricket, and edited a third. He wrote another in 2002, A Corner Of A Foreign Field, described by Australian writer Gideon Haigh as “not so much a history of Indian cricket as a cricket history of India”. Now, he has published a fourth, The Commonwealth Of Cricket, in which he’s a concise essayist, a biographer, a traveller (into his own past), a correspondent—and a witness to over half a century of cricket.

Guha has been writing on the game, in his unassuming, anecdotal style, for 28 years. Apart from commentator Harsha Bhogle and select Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and IPL power brokers, he is one of the few Indians known for their involvement with the game in a non-playing capacity (he was, he insists during a Zoom call, an “utterly mediocre cricketer”). His appointment to the Committee of Administrators (COA)—a panel of four formed in 2017 to temporarily run Indian cricket and implement the Lodha Committee reforms—was an acknowledgement of his standing.

Guha is, arguably, the foremost authority on the evolution of the game in India. Wickets In The East (1992) was a state-wise look at great players past and present; Spin And Other Turns (1994) paid tribute to the superstars of the 1970s and the enduring traditions of Indian cricket; A Corner Of A Foreign Field examined the sociological and political history of the game. This new book, though a personal journey, is also the journey of modern Indian cricket, from the maiden series win over England in 1971 to the World Cup triumphs in 1983 and 2011 to the IPL-saturated present.

His first two cricket books, which arrived at a time when there wasn’t much Indian writing on the game outside of newspapers and magazines, broke new ground, sports writer Sharda Ugra tells me. “When he wrote Spin And Other Turns and Wickets In The East, it came at a time there was scant space for a reckoning and a remembering of a particular time in Indian cricket. Ram is the generation that remembers ’71. These were stories that were told by our dads and our uncles but he gave it a proper frame of reference. It was an understanding and an interpretation of that age that was far removed from just the scorecards.”

Rohit Brijnath, Mint Lounge columnist and an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, says Guha may have benefited from not being a journalist. “He came to the game from another angle, which I always found refreshing. I wasn’t a great reader of cricket history—more of other sports—but he made me interested and became a strong part of my education on Indian cricket. Even though he is a grown-up historian, you can always find in his writing a boy’s love for a game.”

A cricketing life

This book is the culmination of Guha’s lifelong obsession with the game. It’s a memoir of sorts—his journey, but only the cricket bits. We see him as a young fan in Dehradun mentored by his cricket-crazy uncle, Durai (to improve his nephew’s catching, he once surrounded the boy with flowerpots and whacked balls at him). Later, he played for the local Doon School, and for St Stephen’s college in Delhi. By then, he had realised he would never be good enough to represent state or country. His passion for the game, however, was undimmed—though temporarily impeded by geography and a spell of Marxism that saw him give up his cricket library. He retains his all-consuming love for the Karnataka state team and the Friends Union Cricket Club in Bengaluru.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” C.L.R. James asked in his classic book on West Indian cricket, Beyond A Boundary. Guha, of course, knows of a great many things—he has written on the environment, penned the astonishing political history India After Gandhi, and, more recently, a two-volume biography of Gandhi himself. It was a desire to write something less taxing and serious that led him to start work, in 2019, on his first cricket book in 18 years. “I wanted a release from scholarly, heavily footnoted work with not much emotion,” he says on the Zoom call. “So I said, let me have fun, and I started writing this.”

You can tell Guha’s having fun just from the book’s expanded title: A Lifelong Love Affair With The Most Subtle And Sophisticated Game Known To Humankind. It’s an indulgence, he says, an imitation of the pompous titles of 19th century books (he disappeared during our call to find one particular long-winded example). But there’s another, slyer reason. “The ‘most subtle and sophisticated’ is to tease my friends who follow the EPL and the NBA and the Masters—chaabi dena (winding them up), as they say,” he laughs.

This certainly is one of Guha’s blithest works, full of affectionate pen portraits and remembrances of events from decades earlier. From his early years, he shows a knack for bumping into famous people. The “bearded white man” denying Guha’s team a win in Dehradun turns out to be actor Tom Alter; Puducherry lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi gives him and his college teammates a ride to the ground in a police jeep. He’s in a train compartment with quizmaster Neil O’Brien and future politician Derek O’Brien when they hear of Roger Binny scoring a Duleep Trophy hundred; when he watches Kapil Dev score his first Test century, the couple sitting in the seats next to him are broadcasters Prannoy and Radhika Roy.

Long-time Guha readers will notice several familiar stories here—the perils of having already written three anecdote-filled books on Indian cricket. Guha says that while most of the material is new, “I did wonder, how many of my old stories should I tell afresh, and can I tell them in a more interesting way?” Sometimes he embellishes; the edit note in The Picador Book Of Cricket about Viv Richards hitting sixes out of Feroz Shah Kotla stadium “literally all the way from New Delhi to Old Delhi”, is here transposed on to a single mighty hit, followed by the line: “In this city of kingdoms a new king had announced himself.” Some of the old stories have acquired punchlines over the years. In one of the early books, Guha wrote about Bishan Singh Bedi’s drop in form coinciding with his “whiskey waistline”. Later, when he met the spinner in Bengaluru, Bedi corrected him: The weight gain wasn’t because of alcohol, he had given that up by then.

For all its nostalgic warmth, the writing is also an elegy to a kind of cricket fandom that’s largely extinct. The fealty Guha shows to club and state is a rarity now, replaced by garish IPL fan bases. “It’s a lost world,” he agrees, “but it’s a world that nurtured and trained our greatest cricketers. There would be no Erapalli Prasanna without City Cricketers, no Sunil Gavaskar without Dadar Union, no Ajit Wadekar without Shivaji Park Gymkhana. There’s a story I told in an earlier book, when Gavaskar came off a flight from the West Indies to play for his club the next day. So it’s important not just in my life, or the lives of fans like me, but in Indian cricket history.”

I ask Guha if this sort of historically minded approach has also become a rarity. He feels cricket writers should retain some idea of how techniques have changed, what the “Bombay tradition” was—but it doesn’t matter much for players. “Cricket has changed so much that I don’t think (Virat) Kohli needs to know how Gavaskar batted, or (Jasprit) Bumrah needs to know how Kapil Dev bowled.” He chuckles remembering the time India was 403/0 at the end of the fourth day of the Lahore Test in 2006, with Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag batting. They were asked about possibly breaking the Vinoo Mankad-Pankaj Roy world record of 413, the highest opening partnership. “Dravid gave a ponderous reply and Sehwag said something like, yeh Mankad-Fankad kaun (who is this Mankad)? I said, that’s why he bats like he does—he’s unburdened by Mankad.”

Guha’s memories of watching and, in later years, meeting Indian cricketers form the bulk of the book. There are, however, two chapters on foreign players, material taken from an aborted book he had written in the 1990s. We get Guha’s impressions of legends like Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Shane Warne, though the most entertaining bit might be the few paragraphs on the 1960s English batsman Ken Barrington. Guha recalls how a Punjabi player he knew would pronounce the name “Bringtin”, and speculates how this might become “Bearing–tone” in Kolkata. Barrington once told a journalist the secret to his success in the subcontinent was eating eggs and toast wherever he went. Guha supplies the clincher: “I retold this tale to an older colleague of mine in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘During the Test match at Eden Gardens I myself threw him an orange, which he caught, peeled, and ate fully.’”

Playing on a sticky wicket

The other non-Indian chapter is dedicated solely to Pakistan. Guha admits he intended this as a statement, given that cricketing ties with Pakistan have remained suspended for the better part of a decade—2008 was the last Test, and 2013 the last bilateral One Day International—and its players are not allowed to participate in the IPL. “I thought it was something I had to do,” he says. “It’s not just a nod to political correctness—cricketing-wise, Pakistan was very important for my generation.” Though Guha steers largely clear of politics, it does make fleeting appearances, like his own detention in December last year at a Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest in Bengaluru. This too is linked to cricket; Guha had earlier asked his uncle if he would continue to support the Union government if they arrested his nephew.

In an otherwise sunny book, the two chapters on Guha’s time in the COA are sobering. The committee was appointed by the Supreme Court in January 2017. He was brought in, along with ex-Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, banker Vikram Limaye and former cricketer Diana Edulji, to implement the Lodha committee reforms (formulated after the IPL was hit by multiple match-fixing and conflict-of-interest controversies), and to temporarily run Indian cricket. An outsider, and an IPL-hater to boot, Guha was always going to be in the eye of the storm. It was a frustrating and largely fruitless time for him, and he resigned in July that year (the committee itself continued till 2019). In the book, committee head Rai comes across as tentative and starstruck, though Guha reserves his most damning criticism for players whose silence he sees as having been bought by the BCCI. He points to players with conflicts of interest, like Gavaskar, who ran a player management company at the same time he was a commentator for the BCCI, and—in what must have been more upsetting for Guha, given his love for Karnataka cricket—Dravid, who was coach of the U-19 India team and mentor for the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL at the same time.

Though he mostly relied on memory to write the book, Guha was helped by a diary he maintained during his COA stint. The chapters are a checklist of everything that ails modern Indian cricket: the jobs-for-the-boys incentives of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the blatant conflicts of interest this has engendered, the neglect of state cricket, the deference to superstars, and the bullying nature of India on the world stage. He says he quit because the Supreme Court had lost interest in pursuing the matter and he realised he could only effect minimal change.

His sympathies, as always, lay with those whom he saw as the building blocks of Indian cricket. “An ordinary assistant coach in the National Cricket Academy can’t go join an IPL team,” he says. “I spoke to two such people, fine coaches, but not at the level of Dravid or (M.S.) Dhoni. They were told they can’t take the IPL contracts they were offered. The people in the Board want it to be that way. But you see the Supreme Court granting bail to Arnab Goswami and not to other journalists, so maybe this kind of selective justice is part of the Indian system.”

Guha recovers his good humour in the last chapter, in which he lists some of his favourite cricket writers, among them Cardus and James. He tells me he admires several younger Indian sports journalists, but wishes they would take out time to write books. Top-flight cricket writing today has mostly graduated online, in the form of long profiles or the odd exceptional match report. Books on the game, especially from the subcontinent, mostly tend to be player bios or (ghosted) memoirs; Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits From Pakistan, Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman, Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones and Prashant Kidambi’s Cricket Country are accomplished exceptions. Guha says that while he'll continue to follow the game he's been involved with for almost 60 years, he may be closing one door. “I look forward to the Test matches next month, and I look forward to seeing my club play when the pandemic allows, but I am almost sure this is my last book on the game.”

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 21 November 2020.

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