Indian cricket has changed more in the few years of this century than at any other comparable period in its history. There was the match-fixing to begin with, a scandal that ended the career of a popular captain. This was followed by the arrival of a new captain and redemption, as India began to win Test matches abroad. Later, India won World Cups in two formats, their greatest batsman, Sachin Tendulkar retired, as did their greatest bowler, Anil Kumble. The Board of Control for Cricket in India established its suzerainty over world cricket, there was a second fixing episode, and the Supreme Court had to intervene to sort out the mess.
Two events occurred in 2007 that changed world cricket too.
The first was India's ignominious exit from the 50-over World Cup in the preliminary stages, the same as Pakistan, thus ensuring they didn't play each other in that tournament. Television's loss meant that these two teams have been in the same group since, thus guaranteeing at least one meeting.
The more significant event was India winning the inaugural T20 World Cup. It saw the endorsement of a new format, and led to the birth of the IPL, the biggest fund generator for the richest cricket board.
That India took nearly two decades to win their first Test puts the pace of recent changes in perspective. Eleven Gods swings between the past and present, juxtaposing a chapter on how Indian sepoys appropriated an English game in the 19th century with the miracle of Calcutta 2001, and “challenging the Chappell shenanigans”. It is a format that makes for an unevenness both in style and content, but allows us occasionally to glimpse at history repeating itself, especially where officialdom versus players is concerned.
Majumdar’s book takes its title from the chapter heading of one of his earlier books; and not just the title, but large portions of the themes and writing too. Chapters on Ranji, Vinoo Mankad, Lala Amarnath borrow heavily from his previous books, Once Upon a Furore and Twenty Yards to Freedom. The story of Ranji's romantic interests is new, however, and quite fascinating, revealing the great batsman as an amateur poet too.
The chapters on contemporary events and personalities would be familiar to all. The book’s strength lies in detailing these stories, but the weakness is the lack of any fresh insights into them. What you know is what you get; what you want is the story behind the story. And here it disappoints.
There are two Majumdars attempting to capture the Indian story—the historian, who presents letters and primary sources, and the journalist who relies on personal involvement and anecdotes. It is the journalist who dominates, occasionally divesting himself of objectivity, as when an India-Pakistan encounter is discussed. The historian makes an interesting point early: “It may be a mere coincidence that the cities and towns where sepoy cricket was fairly well-developed were those which were prominent in the uprising of 1857.” But this is not followed up.
If the writing is journalistic, therefore, it might be to the book’s advantage. The story of the chicken biryani dinner on the night after India won the World Cup in 2011, and the problems with breakfast and lunch on the day of the Pakistan semi-final make for good reading. Coach Gary Kirsten makes a telling point, “You think all of the players are friends? To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me....” Team spirit, I maintain, is often a result of victory, not its cause!
It is more than a decade since India won the T20 World Cup, which means that today’s average fan was probably in her teens then. Perhaps she needs the history lessons in this book, even if the lessons of history may not be as easily available here. Majumdar’s strengths are his passion for the game and an awareness of its history as well as a more granular knowledge of its current shenanigans, thanks to his professional interest as writer and television anchor.
The endorsement by Vinod Rai, head of the Committee of Administrators, might suggest this is an ‘official’, sanitised version of events, but there are stories here to make the authorities unhappy. However, Majumdar has been let down by his editors. Words are used interchangeably, ‘bemusing’ for ‘amusing’, ‘hand’ for ‘handle’, ‘disinterested’ for ‘uninterested’, and so on. More pertinently, the editors should have been aware of how much of this book has already appeared in the author’s previous books. It would have made for a tighter, more focused history, perhaps one that restricted itself to Indian cricket in the new century.