The Commonwealth of Cricket

Published: 2020
Pages: 348
Author: Guha, Ramachandra
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: 5 stars

Let me make one thing clear at the very outset:  you do not read a cricket book written by Ramachandra Guha.

You actually converse with the man as you read what he has written.

While  a lot of cricket writing seems to revolve around the use of adjectives that often lean towards hyperbole and similes sans sanity, Guha has always written in a manner that has been both sensible and accessible. Right from his first cricket book, Wickets in the East, he is perhaps the closest thing we have to a People’s Writer in cricket. Perhaps because he loves the sport itself and likes to talk about it. Like so many of us do. It is not as if he cannot be majestic and magisterial – he has written perhaps the finest account of independent India (India After Gandhi), and his works on Mahatma Gandhi and the environment are stupendous literary achievements.

But cricket sees a different side of him. It is a bit like seeing Geoffrey Boycott or Sunil Gavaskar just having a go at the bowling. It is as magnificent as their iconic defences, if a little unusual. Or perhaps because it is unusual. 

When Ramachandra Guha speaks of cricket (it always feels like that), you can see him flip the switch from being a master narrator or an astute observer to being a participant in a conversation. And the result is mesmerising. Even in his best-known cricketing work, A Corner of a Foreign Field, which was a history of the sport in India, he was more at your side and in your ear, than speaking from a lectern (a la some others).

The Commonwealth of Cricket is Guha’s fourth cricket book, and while each contained a fair amount of his own perspective and the impact the game had on him,  it is easily the most intensely personal. The subtitle of the book is  A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind and that pretty much fits.  The book is Guha talking about cricket right through his own lifetime. Some have called the book a memoir of sorts, but make no mistake about it, most of it is about cricket right around the life of the author himself, who for some time, did harbour intentions of taking up the sport seriously.

The book covers a fascinating period of cricket, because the game in the country literally grew up with Guha.  Right from the fifties and sixties where Ranji Trophy matches  to the current time, Guha takes the reader along with him on a passage through Indian cricket. There are anecdotes and comparisons galore here, and all of them told with the flair of a storyteller. The stars like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Bishen Bedi, Rahul Dravid, and Sachin Tendulkar are inevitably there, but so are lesser known players. For instance, there is  K Laxman, a “quickish left-arm spin” bowler, who played a crucial role in the Ranji Trophy in 1974. He was making his debut in the tournament. At the age of forty! It is not just Indian cricketers who get a mention. Guha brings to life  a number of international superstars too – from Vivian Richards to Martin Crowe to Javed Miandad to Ian Botham. What’s more, he does so with none of the over the top praise or criticism that is the hallmark of many cricket writers. Yes, there is the odd twinkle of humour but most of them, there is a picture. And it is painted with words. Thus does he describe Arjuna  Ranatunga:

With the possible exception of Erapalli Prasanna, no man has looked less like a Test cricketer than Arjuna Ranatunga. Consider the consequence of a shot played by him down to third man. He rolled up the wicket for a single, side to side, bat held horizontally between the two hands, reminding this viewer of a fat bandmaster who for years used to conduct the passing-out parade at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun.

He is more sombre when recalling a chance meeting with Mohammad Azharuddin, a player who captained India, was embroiled in a match-fixing scandal and then ended up in Parliament.

He was still fine physically; well toned, superbly proportioned, not an ounce of extra flesh anywhere. But he looked distracted and desperately alone. I have never felt so sad at shaking another human being’s hand.

There is however, a clear shifting of gear towards the end of the book, when Guha recounts his period as an administrator in the Indian cricket board (the BCCI). It was indeed an odd appointment, given the rather dubious reputation of the board and Guha’s own reputation for being forthright and a person of integrity. Of course, it could not last, but Guha’s description of this period is a must-read for anyone who thinks that Indian cricket is in good hands. There is no end of conflicting interests, nepotism and dishonesty seems rife. It is a messy house, and Guha, to his credit, did try to tidy it up. That he could not do so tells you more of the task that he faced than of his own abilities. And of course, the superstar culture that prevails in the sport in India. Indeed, his summary of cricket superstars in the country is one of the most telling passages of the book. Considering how deeply he loved the sport and those who played it, one can only imagine the disappointment with which he penned these words:

There are four categories of cricket superstars in India:

     1. Crooks who consort with and pimp for bigger non-cricket-playing crooks.

     2. Those who are willing and keen to practice conflict of interest explicitly.

     3. Those who will try to be on the right side of the law but stay absolutely silent on…those in      categories 1 and 2.

     4. Those who are themselves clean and also question those in categories 1 and 2.

According to him – and I would second him on this – only one cricketing great had remotely any chance of qualifying for inclusion in category 4 – Bishan Singh Bedi. It is a telling indictment of the game’s current superpower. And will not make pleasant reading for anyone who believes that India rules cricket, all is well with the world. Guha is similarly brutal on the Twenty20 format of the game, quoting an article in which he said: Test cricket may be compared to the finest Scotch, fifty-overs a side to Indian Made Foreign Liquor, and 20-20 to the local hooch. The addict who cannot have the first or the second will make do with the last. The pleasures of the shortest game are intense but also wholly ephemeral.

And yet, in spite of everything, he does still love the game. What’s more, he does so with a level of objectivity that is rare. Till I was in my thirties, I always wanted my country to win. Now, I only want a good match…the chauvinisms of generation and nation I have left behind me. The partisanship towards bowlers and Test cricket I will retain till the end of my days, he writes on the last page of this 348-page book on the sport that has accompanied his life.

The Commonwealth of Cricket for me is perhaps the best cricket book I have read for a few years. And a lot of it has got to do with its narrative style. It does not having the humour and sex, drugs and rock and roll of Derek Pringle’s Pushing the Boundaries, or the (sometimes almost forced) lyrical quality of Peter Roebuck or Gideon Haigh. Nor does it have the slightly over sanitised and highly over commercial feel that many cricket books today do. And not everyone will approve of it. Some will be annoyed at the absence of an index (the publishers really missed out there). There will be those who will huff and puff about Australian and perhaps South African cricketers not getting enough space and there being too much of India and Pakistan. And there will be still others who will accuse Guha of being vain in quoting his e-mails to cricketers and their responses to them (Dravid’s reply to a mail advising him on his fielding position  is delectably subtle), but then, this is a very personal account.

The Commonwealth of Cricket is one of the rare books that simply talk about a person’s relationship with a sport and the way it evolved throughout his life. It is not Fever Pitch, because Guha is not looking for literary acclaim here. His prose is simple, direct and dryly witty when he wishes it to be. He is not showing off, or being self-indulgent, but  just talking about a sport he loved. Still loves.  For, if Ramachandra Guha was batting in life, cricket was clearly the non-striker, keeping him going, and walking down time and again for a little chat.

It has been an amazing partnership. And hopefully, it has not ended, notwithstanding the auto’s disappointments with the game and its practitioners and administrators.

Go ahead and get a copy if you love cricket. Irrespective of your nationality. For, if you have not heard Ramchandra Guha on cricket, you have missed out on something. Yes, I used the word “heard.” You do not “read” a cricket book written by Ramachandra Guha…

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