Ramachandra Guha’s new book is about a lifelong love affair with cricket with an elegiac air hanging over it.
We who write on cricket do so without envy. That’s a lovely line from Ramachandra Guha, who characterised himself as an off-spinner who seldom turned the ball and batted at number ten or eleven. It meant that, to quote from his Spin and Other Turns, “I have gloried unashamedly in the achievement (of others).” To fail at art or politics is “to embitter one for life; to fail on the cricket field is to marvel at those who don’t.”
We owe the cricketing gods a debt for ensuring that Guha was but a modest player. It made him an outstanding writer.
Remarkable on two counts
The Commonwealth of Cricket, Guha’s latest, is remarkable on at least two counts: the historian and private man talks about his family, and secondly, the book moves between Pollyanna and Diogenes. About four-fifths is full of joy and cheer and optimism, a fan’s travelogue. A fifth deals with murkiness in the administration.
When Guha became a Supreme Court-appointed administrator, I told my wife that we might lose a romantic, but Indian cricket might have found a saviour. In the event, neither came to pass.
The Commonwealth shows the romantic is alive, and that’s a blessing; you can read it as a return to a briefly interrupted love affair. Sadly, Indian cricket is back to being run by the old compromisers or their relatives.
Some of the saddest portions of the book detail how the hopes were dashed, as much by politicians in power as by Guha’s colleagues in the administration who chose to remain silent. Guha writes about this with engaging honesty, conscious of serving a higher cause, the historian setting the record straight.
Speaking of the reaction of the CoA to yet another BCCI shenanigan, Guha says, “I urged our chairman, Vinod Rai to issue a public statement saying this was illegal, but he was too nervous to do so. His silence emboldened the Old Guard further.”
Guha explains how the BCCI plied Rai and others with photo-ops with Indian cricket’s superstars, “further defanging our committee.” Publicity, writes Guha, “had got to my colleagues.”
Guha’s uprightness and the realisation he could not continue in a committee that was increasingly beginning to function like the BCCI itself, led to his stepping down. His resignation letter was a model of restraint and distress.
Guha details how pointing out their violations of the conflict of interest code turned Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid against him. And also the interesting ways in which the bridges were later rebuilt.
I don’t know if The Commonwealth is a way of saying farewell to writing about the game. One hopes not. It is the story of a lifelong love affair with cricket. But an elegiac air hangs over it despite the delightful anecdotes, both personal and picked from the vast folklore of the game.
As a schoolboy, Guha revelled in the fact that he was a “mere three handshakes away from a cricketing immortal.” As he grew older, “I began climbing up this hierarchy of hero worship myself,” he says.
Guha’s cricketing heroes are not just international players but former teammates at college and players at his club, the Friends Union Cricket Club, in Bengaluru. His uncle Durai, the face of that club, played a crucial role in his development as a player and a cricket person (many of the former don’t get to become the latter, but that’s another story).
Guha’s loyalties — FUCC, Karnataka, India — are in the order prescribed by internationals of an earlier generation who wrote club-State-country beneath their names on their kit bags. Few Indians have written with such passion about their clubs; fewer have written about club cricketers with such charm.
It is the Englishman’s boast that true cricket is played only on the village green. For the Indian it was once the local league, played on matting, turf, hastily swept maidan ‘pitches’ or anywhere fervour trumped hindrances.
Fan of his times
The young Guha was a fan of his times. He is slightly older, but we did the same things in different cities. That is, scrounged for match tickets, looked around desperately for books on the game while reading serialisations in Sport and Pastime (Ten Great Bowlersby Ralph Barker a favourite), attended school, college and club nets, somehow got our hands on C.L.R. James’ Beyond A Boundary, attended league matches and rubbed shoulders with local heroes.
It’s a lost time, and Guha’s book, like Proust’s madeleine, will open the floodgates of memory for one generation while giving a peep into that era for another.
But Guha is no cricketing luddite, going on about the past. That he is willing to replace his favourite Viswanath with Virat Kohli in his all-time XI is testimony enough. And speaks of his fair-mindedness in this, the most personal of his books.
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