Cricket WallahGareth Bland |
Author: Scyld Berry
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Rating: 4 stars
Cricket Wallah was the first book by that modern-day sage of the English game Scyld Berry, and was published when the author was just 27. Berry’s maiden work was this seminal account of the England tour of India and Sri Lanka which followed Botham’s 1981 Ashes heroics. Not only is Wallah noteworthy for the coverage of the tour from a purely cricketing perspective, it also takes a shot at reimagining Indian cricketing culture through a global lens. Essentially, asked Berry, could this mammoth, fanatical cricket nation somehow be repositioning itself to reboot the game and control the game’s destiny in the near future? He argued:
“Was there a groundswell turning in favour of watching and playing the game which would come to alter the existing shape of the cricket map? While Australia was the most progressive Test-playing country, West Indies the strongest, and England still leading in the game’s administration, was India soon to rival them?”
It was obvious, according to Berry, that those same rapt masses who turned out to watch such turgid fare as was served up that Indian summer could equally easily be the drivers of the game’s multi-billion Rupee future. The fan base did not have to be generated or cajoled; cricketing fanaticism was endemic.
Not just a tour book, but a travelogue and a work of social history, Cricket Wallah covers England’s infamous six Test series with India in 1981/82. There was something undeniably “after the Lord Mayor’s show” about the tour, coming just weeks after the end of the Botham’s Ashes summer of 1981. England, previously revivified under Brearley in the English summer, landed in India under the leadership of Keith Fletcher, then 37 and an absentee from the international scene since 1976/77. In terms of personnel, with Fletcher as captain and with other senior pros such as John Lever and Derek Underwood, England’s touring party resembled, in part, something of a throwback.
The cricket itself was painstakingly dull in the main, with five drawn Tests following India’s victory in the opening encounter. Gavaskar and Fletcher were defensive-minded leaders and there is the view that the endless torpor contributed to the elopement of the England rebels to South Africa in March 1982. Berry was in the dark as were all but the uninitiated here, as much a tribute to the clandestine machinations of Boycott, Gooch et al as anything else.
Geoffrey Boycott is revealed in all his complexity. Perhaps only in Leo McKinstry’s excellent biography Boycs is Boycott’s eccentric behaviour on that tour covered better. As the Yorkshireman became more withdrawn, so his batting got slower and his demeanour weirder. His eventual breaking of sick bay-induced curfew to play golf in the middle of a Test match being the final straw for both opener and tour management. Captain Fletcher’s earlier tour defence of Boycott as the “the greatest slow batsman in the world” might seem odd now, but is instructive in how greatly valued his contribution remained, even at the age of 41. When Sobers’ record Test haul of 8,032 was finally broken in the third Test at Delhi, Boycott’s tour was almost up.
The diversity of the landscape, culture and language of India is skillfully drawn out by Berry. A Botham hunting trip is contained within these pages, and the almost universal affection in which the great all-rounder was held by Indian fans, who was touchingly garlanded wherever he went, is evident throughout.
When Berry strays into the socio-cultural aspects of Indian life, he is just as beguiling. A chapter is devoted to the minority Parsi community, who settled in the Gujarat and Sindh areas of the country almost a millennium ago. Originating from Persia – from which the word Parsi derives – their descendants have had a profound impact on Indian cricket given their number. Farrukh Engineer, Nariman “Nari” Contractor and Polly Umrigar are the three most notable Parsi cricketers and, being Zoroastrian, they remain a community essentially outside the traditional Hindhu/Sikh/Muslim trichotomy.
Given his obvious fascination with India, it comes as little surprise to find that the author’s wife herself comes from the country. Born in Sheffield, the son of a professor of literature at the university, Anthony Scyld Ivens Berry is not a Yorkshireman in the mould of, say, Ray Illingworth but one rather more in the design of that other Sheffield lad turned globetrotter, Michael Palin. The first of his seven books, Cricket Wallah sets a benchmark for tour books and, if it did not quite capture Indian cricket at the crossroads of modernity, it chronicled one inching inexorably toward the starting line.