April 04, 2020
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Now, That's Not Out

Recalling a time when fielding was a leisurely day at the par

Now, That's Not Out
Autobiography Of An Unknown Cricketer
By Sujit Mukherjee
Ravi Dayal Rs 150; Pages: 168
THE laws of cricket rarely follow those of nature, which is perhaps why the willow sun in India has always risen in the West. While the Bengali bhadralok may have been the first to give up the dhoti for flan-nels and eastern India may be blessed with fanatical supporters who will probably throng the Eden Gardens to even watch Canada playing against Kenya, the region has been sadly bereft of cricketing talent. By contrast, the west coast has been India's nursery for the sport, with Mumbai having produced an assembly line of great cricketers. Amidst the Merchants, Gavaskars and Tendulkars, the Roys and the Banerjees have been few and far between. As have the Mukherjees, which is why the author here remains an unknown cricketer, a professor of English who appreciates Vinoo Mankad's spinning fingers better than he does Shakespeare's prose. But good enough only to represent lowly Bihar in the Ranji Trophy.

And yet, there are three reasons why this autobiography has its own weight even beyond the boundary (sorry, to borrow a little of social historian C.L.R. James' book, but it remains the bible for all aspiring cricket sociologists). First, because this book thrives on nostalgia. It is unfortunate that in this age of instant gratifica-tion and instant television replays, cricket has little or no time for tradition. Few of our contemporary superstars have any sense of the history of the sport. Mukh-erjee recaptures the flavour of the game from a period when first-class players happily travelled by train, when a towel wrapped around the thigh was considered adequate protection, when fielding was still considered a leisurely day out at the park, and when school and college cricket still meant something to its participants. No one should condemn modern-day cricketers for having adopted a lifestyle that is more akin to pop stars, but one would wish that at least some of them remained true to the sport's amateur roots. How many first-class cricketers today even bother to play club cricket?

Moreover, I have always been convinced that the men who have made Indian cricket a national religion are not the million-dollar boy wonders but the hundreds and thousands of unknown faces who play the game with an uncommon zeal year after year. None of them are going to play for the country, and most will not play for even their state. And yet, they will brave all weather conditions just to get in a game. In Mumbai, we have a 67-year-old player called Melhi Irani, who for the last 50 years has been unfailingly going to the maidan every weekend to get a slice of the action. He keeps wickets even now, and any thought that age may be catching up is dismissed by a firm "howzat" everytime the batsman ventures out of his crease.

Like Irani, the author Mukherjee too has an eternal love affair with the game. Then, whether it be fighting to get a place in the Patna College B team, or doing commentary for All India Radio, or just writing on the sport, Mukherjee seems the sort who would probably sacrifice his pension if only to watch Brian Lara play one cover drive. Admittedly, it is passion that sustains sport, the passion that emanates from both the connoisseur and the man on the street.

But the most important reason why this book had to be written is because it describes a Bihar so much at variance with our present vision of the state. This is not Laloo Yadav's Republic; there are no animal husbandry scams, no teachers protesting in the semi-nude for not being paid their salaries, no inspector-generals of police being on the run from the law, no vengeful caste killings and no chief minister making crude attempts at playing the village yokel.

Mukherjee's Bihar is very different. It is state where Jesuit educationists are aware of the role of the Victorian games ethic in character-building. There are district administrators who are ready to help the growth of sport, governor's military secretaries who can organ-ise tea parties in the afternoons, clubs and gymkhanas whose members go on cricket tours to places like Lucknow and Shillong and law college students who actually attend classes. In other words, this is Bihar which is orderly and civilised, even if civilisation has to be defined in the Macaulayan sense. For those who have experienced the subsequent Yadavisation of the state, and are unable to relate to a polity which in the name of social justice and subaltern assertiveness commits all kinds of blunders, it must be comforting to hark back to a more genteel era. Cricket, after all, requires you to play by the rules of the game. And yes, you can't get in the team on the basis of any misguided reservation policy.

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